Mysticism, (Huh), What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing (But Relatively Something)

Mysticism, (Huh), What is it Good For?  Absolutely Nothing (But Relatively Something)

As the League’s resident ordained clergyman to be, I read with piqued interest Br. Jason’s take on Ross Douthat’s take on the American take on contemporary religious mysticism.

Jason quotes this passage from Baba Ross D:

[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.

Jason comments:

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.

Whether Ross is being a snob I’m not sure (maybe? partially?); I’ll leave that to the readers to make up their own minds.

But I think a similar or related critique of pop mysticism could be made that wouldn’t be intrinsically snobby.

To wit, Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert), one of the godfathers of the LSD mystical hit turned pilgrimage to India, author of the magisterially trippy (Remember) Be Here Now (from which the above picture is taken), said the real issue was “altered traits not altered states.”

I would further say (contra Ross and seconding Jason) that the American phenomenon of religion, from its inception, is, as Harold Bloom argued, spiritual experientialism:  Pentecostalism, Revivalism (out of which grew Joseph Smith and the uniquely American religion of Mormonism), The Great Awakenings, The Shakers, New Thought movements, Esalen, William James and the scientific study of mysticism, pre Vatican II “High” Roman Catholic Eucharistic Adoration and Liturgy, Spiritualism, Billy Graham stadium spectacles, and now since the 60s the entrance of Eastern forms of mystical experience.

America , as Jason says, is a mass-produced society and so we mass produce mystical experiences–whether in sports, sex, even cooking.  And of course in various meditation practices, retreats and so forth.  (I’m 2 out of 3 on that scale, which, as they say, ain’t bad.).  And of course drugs as temporary ecstatic states, technically exogenous mystical states (which I definitely have never experienced).  Meditation-induced states are labeled endogenous.

Still, these are all leave open the issue of altered traits, not altered states.  As in, a person can have all kinds of altered states but if their traits aren’t altered, what’s been gained really?

This isn’t snobbery but to ask, “What’s the point?” Or in 1980s language, “Where’s the (transformative) beef?”  Though I’m not sure that later question will go over with a lot of would be seekers, (of the Eastern-influenced variety), given the popularity of vegetarianism in such circles.

Mystical states are generally higher potential capacities of the human body-mind.  I would say they are only “higher” insofar as humans haven’t yet adapted to them as common occurrences as a species.  [You might call that view a naturalized mysticism if you like].  That means they have a relative value and can be good things, but they can also be (as mystics of all traditions have long pointed out), just another source of egocentrism–in fact arguably an even more pernicious form of egocentrism as now you are (as a friend of mine once said), “Enlightened yes, but still an asshole.”

But it leaves open the question of an Absolute Awakening (often incorrectly called mystical/spiritual).  What Ram Dass above calls Absolute Compassion and therefore a changed way of being human at fundamental levels of identity, emotion, speech, bodily action, and thought.  As opposed to temporary groovy experiences or “getting spiritually high” (with or without actually getting high).  

More importantly the necessity for such an Absolute awakening to occur in the context of cultures dedicated to life–that’s what I think is missing from the current scene, not that it’s too “bourgeois” or whatever.

To come back to Ross for a second:

The great mystics of the past were often committed to a particular tradition and community, and bound by the rules (and often the physical confines) of a specific religious institution. Without these kind of strictures and commitments, Johnson argues, mysticism drifts easily into a kind of solipsism: “Kabbalism apart from Torah-observance is playacting; Sufism disconnected from Shariah is vague theosophy; and Christian mysticism that finds no center in the Eucharist or the Passion of Christ drifts into a form of self-grooming.”

Now the religions will undoubtedly want to hold on to the spiritual technologies; I don’t think you have to be Foucault to see that point.  But there is a point I think about the inherent necessity of a tradition, a cultural-social embedding of the practices, the worldview, the experiences, the institution surrounding any such mystical technology.  Traditionally we call these formations religions.

The “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon of the contemporary age is just itself another religion and (as a student and practicioner of religion), I think a particularly piss poor one at that.  Spiritual but not religious just keeps people increasingly isolated and individualized and therefore increasingly influenced (if not controlled) by larger social and cultural forces.  Like arguing how “you’re spiritual but not religious” is some personal choice when it’s really now a cultural meme.

The religion becomes de facto the globalized market which has a tendency to neutralize (over time I would argue) the capacity for spiritually-influenced ethical distinction–if not counterbalanced by other forces that is.  This isn’t a Marxist anti-market tirade, but rather a critique of the way in which the market has become the new religion (in my mind).  Generally lost is an ability to question the central focus of the self-sense as one’s only and primary identity not to mention any social-prophetic critique of injustice in the world, beyond paeans to “compassion” (as above).

To bring back the American example, how often has all this mystical experientialism caused people to really radically re-think the social order of the United States or its relation to the world?  The Abolitionists?  The Civil Rights movement?  Or otherwise asked, how often does this religious experientialist tradition of America become aligned with the idea of American exceptionalism, of American power, and cement unjust and unmerciful ways of human life?

I mean on one level I get (even believe, even can feel) the notion of Christ as in Compassion to his murderers, however silly it might now seem to us to change the Garden of Gethsemene’s “Father let this cup pass from me, but not my will but they will be done” to “Tomorrow’s the Big Trip”.  Still it would also be a help for the religion to say “STOP CRUCIFYING PEOPLE.”

At best a mystical (or even trans-mystical) state reveals a deep Compassion/Love/Awareness of the larger process of Life and its creatures and their inherent moral and existential value.  But that glimpse/mystical vista needs to be practiced in the world in some way that actually practically makes that vision become real and concrete.  Not just going for another round of such experiences 6 months later when you have a weekend free from work, as a kind of spiritual release valve or “timeout” from the brutalities of existence.

Update I:

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24 thoughts on “Mysticism, (Huh), What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing (But Relatively Something)

  1. “To bring back the American example, how often has all this mystical experientialism caused people to really radically re-think the social order of the United States or its relation to the world?”

    But let’s contrast this to an older, more traditional version of spirituality that Ross seems to be advocating. How often did, say, Catholicism in Ireland or Russian Orthodox religion lead people to radically rethink the social order? I’m not sure the case has been affirmatively made for the positive value of more grounded, traditional forms of spirituality.


    • that’s a good question. In the Irish case, it was the church that in many ways started the movement away from tribal warfare (talking way back). Similar to the Russian conversion of Vikings. Though then the church (in both cases) becomes embedded in the (new) traditional order.

      The Russian Orthodox Church (generally speaking, exceptions in every case) offered an often quiet resistance to the Soviet state but now has (at its top leadership) gone back to a Romanov style fusion of state-religion with its admiration for Putin.


  2. I find myself wondering what Walt Whitman would thought of LSD. Or what he would have written if he’d had access to it.


    • LSD is interesting given that it’s synthetic.

      You know Whitman better than me, does he ever talk about taking peyote or some “natural” drug? Opiate?

      Sherlock Holmes used cocaine in a recreational sense.

      My (not very intelligent I bet) guess is that Whitman would more obviously favor the latter category. As to the former….hmmm good question.


  3. Can anyone tell me what the word spiritual is supposed to mean?

    I ask because I consider myself not-spiritaul and not-religious. I’m just trying to experience good love and laughs while not being too much of a bastard to the other 6+ billion people during my estimated 29220 spins on this quaint rock.

    10692 or so down, 18528 to go.


  4. “Mysticism,” the league is great!
    To embrace a “rational,” immanent or dream world existence experienced in progressivism, positivism, Marxist, or any of a number of contemporary ideological disorders, is to participate in an existence that is less than human, and I really don’t mean to insult a considerable number of the league’s membership.
    The tension of existence, defined by Plato and the Neo-Patonists as a Metaxical reality, is where we experience reality, order, and truth because within this metaical reality we experience that which we, as human beings, long for. The divine/human relationship.
    And, it is this experience of divine reality explicated and differentiated as a tension between theologia mystica and theologia dogmatica that begins in history as far back as the “patres” where, until recently a pernicious dogma has been allowed by Christian thinkers to separate from the mystical experience that engendered the dogma, resulting in a decline in the Christian community.
    I am very pleased to see the subject of mysticism brought forward and I look forward to the discussion.


    • Unfortunately, I have to be honest and say I’m not going to get to Voegelin any time soon. There’s just so much on my reading list… I hope we can still talk to each other.

      But the tension between mysticism and dogma is an interesting one. When do you think the two got separated? Or perhaps there’s no clean historical break, but rather a dominant historical trend: your comment made me think immediately of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr, the theologian and the mystic. (Von Balthasar is fairly high on my reading list.)


      • Voegelin has the power to change your life both noetically and pneumatically. All philosophy, true philosophy leads to theology.
        Consequently, I’m disappointed you won’t read an essay or two. As to the mystical/dogmatic phenomenon it is best understood within the tension of existence, e.g. being experiences the divine, that experience is recorded as symbols to be transcribed and retained by believers and in time becomes a dogma. The strength of the mystical experience begins, at once, to fade and the believer falls back on the dogma rather than comprehending that the Gospel’s strength is in the presence of the Unknown God “in a man’s existence to his death and life.”
        The Greeks, Voegelin pointed out were right, man discovered his consciousness when he understood that his existence was predicated on immortalizing, and that occurred throughout the world from 800-500 BCE, the great “leap of being.”
        You must read Voegelin.

        Re: Von Balthasar Voegelin began his gnostic studies on Balthasar’s Prometheus book, he was a favorite of EV.


        • Well, I can read an essay or two. Which three would you recommend to a beginner? It’ll just be a while before I can get to a book.

          I’ve been very interested in theological aesthetics for the past few years, so I’m hoping to get to some of Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord.


          • I have Von Balthasazar’s “Theo-Logis” three volumes. He’s a brilliant, controversial figure who had a great deal of difficulty with the Creator administring ‘judgement’. He thinks very much like EV. We’re talking here about men who forgot more than I’ll ever know. Men, who sought the Good, God and the truthof existence. Man, it doesn’t get better than that.

            The book you want is Vol. 12 of the CW, and the three essays:
            1. Immortality: Experience and Symbol
            2. The Gospel and Culture
            3.Reason: The Classical Experience
            and if your switch gets flipped:
            4. On Hegel: A Study of Sorcery
            5. On Classical Studies

            If you have a pneumatic Illumination email me and I’ll give you the BEST order of the CW to read ([email protected]) My pal, DW Sabin, is reading EV!!!!


  5. I don’t think that drugs can produce anything close to a mystical state… but I do think that they can produce states that are significantly different from the mundane. Insofar as they can show people what significantly different looks like, maybe they can be useful to help people know what to look for when they look for the mystical, if only to help cover the “seriously, nothing like the mundane” part.

    But I’ve seen too many people mistake “different” for “it”.
    Hell, I’ve seen too many people mistake the pleasure from (some) drugs for the pleasure that comes from flourishing.

    So I’m neither advocate nor fan.

    But I can see how there might be some people who could get a nudge towards “it” via use of them that they might not be able to find on their own.


  6. I was into the drug/mystical experience years ago, and it was mostly a deadend, as Alan Watts said on a different subject “like trying to kiss your own lips”. I say “mostly” because it did open my mind to something larger. I think you too quickly dismiss the “spiritual but not religious” — yes, it can be a meaningless posture, but it can also be a serious attempt at spirtuality disconnected from dogma or belief in a personal God, a spirituality that is simple but helps a person go deeper than the surface, and can transform a person in such a way that action and deep change are inspired. To be truthful, great literature has inspired me to be a better person. But if we connect everything that creates a “true” spirituality with religion, then that’s just saying that whatever is truly spiritual is also religious — we could drop one of those words and just connect to whatever changes us — call it religious or spiritual.


  7. Sadly, the LOOG is subsumed in a gnosticism or a gnostic conceit, a work of magic, that is descended from the NeoPlatonists. The League is consumed by second realities, but that, gentlemen, is by choice.


  8. “Spiritual but not religious just keeps people increasingly isolated and individualized and therefore increasingly influenced (if not controlled) by larger social and cultural forces. Like arguing how “you’re spiritual but not religious” is some personal choice when it’s really now a cultural meme.”

    Well said. I see it as a kind of transitional stage after one begins to leave behind a childish or naive conception of religion/spirituality that where you can look around to find where your interests or passions lie. The problem is when you build you home there and spirituality is reduced to confirming your own ego.


      • By childish and naive I mean simply that we have to move beyond the conception of God as a really powerful being that lives “out there” somewhere. I grew up a Southern Baptist and left that in my early twenties but have since returned via the Orthodox Church and now the Episcopal Church.


        • Sort of a sky god to the old mountain gods, only skyer?

          Perhaps a “space” god…

          Perhaps we could come up with a story covering how the space god fought and defeated the old sky god. We should certainly include a section where the space god took advantage of the old sky god’s impotence…


        • Mike,
          I may have misunderstood your question so let me add that I don’t believe it’s necessary to be a part of a established tradition but I myself found it difficult as it can be highly individualistic. As long as there others to keep us in check it’s certainly not impossible.


  9. The premise of the post seems to be that religion alters “traits” rather than current state, and that these altered states are a good thing.

    I disagree with both of these assumptions.

    Did good ol’ fashioned religions cause people to “radically re-think the social order”? Not really. When religions are adopted by the state, they preserve the social order. Think of Islam or Catholicism. Universal suffrage, the (US ethnic) civil rights movement, and abolitionism were artifacts of their time that were adopted by populist religious groups.

    When religions are used as tools to change the social order, are the results necessarily positive? No. Just take a look at the crusades or Iran’s Basij (volunteer religious vice squad). We can toss Afghanistan’s Taliban or any number of other self appointed moral police forces throughout history.

    The West’s move away from organized religion probably has more to do with the US anti-establishment backlash of the 60s and the Christian church’s failure to keep up with current morality (viz the Catholic church’s various sexual abuse cover ups, and the spasms of hate reacting against gay marriage and the ordination of women). At the same time, less and less of our lives need a mystical explanation, and people are finding it easier to operate without the small scale mutual aide that religion once provided.

    Religion isn’t falling to mysticism, established religions are creaking under the weight of an open and accepting society. As time goes on, either religion will become more personal (meaning fewer organized religions) or organized religions will adapt to our progressive social landscape. Or we’ll fall into a spasm of social conservativism and the old-skool religions will suddenly be relevant again.

    PS: Is the “the Market” a religion? No, not really. Fervent belief isn’t a religion any more than believing in Santa Claus or cheering on a sports team.


  10. I believe Douthat is referring back to a time that exists only in imagination. The great Christian mystics were not necessarily supporting the the staus quo of thier church at the time. The Hildegards, Eckharts, even Mertons, although embedded in a system were not reinforcing it. I wonder today if the pursuit of a mystical experience is any different than the late Medieval pilgrims traveling to Santiago or Canterbury to be shriven, blessed and shorn then returning to life.


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