The word “mysticism” speaks to a variety of phenomena reported within most world religions.
In his 1963 classic, Mysticism in World Religion, Rev. Sidney Spencer looks at the idea of “interior perception” as one aspect of mysticism. Spencer says that virtually all mystics claim to be in contact with a transcendent realm “which typically assumes the form of knowledge, often described in terms of vision, and of union.”¹
Spencer also believes that mysticism is essential to not only religion but to humanity’s future. But Spencer warns against generalizing the claims of mystics without sufficient facts. To do so, he says, could be misleading.
The religion scholar Ninian Smart talks about religious experience within a global-historical context and, in a similar vein as Spencer, highlights their differences through the analogy of sports: To say that all sports are essentially the same is ridiculous. And Smart believes it is equally wrong to say that all religions are essentially the same religion or, for that matter, that all different types of mysticism can be reduced to a single mysticism.
It is, I think, useful to distinguish between religion and religions, or to put it another way between religion and a religion. This is similar to the distinction between sport and sports. A religion is a given tradition of a religious kind, and so religious experience is often picked out by considering crucial experiences in the lives of those who belong to such traditions.²
Critics of Smart say his analogy is unjustified because mysticism deals with God, and there is only one God. And some New Age and politically correct thinkers denounce anyone trying to analytically assess and soberly compare different religious truth claims, insinuating that to do so is religious fascism, bigotry or hate.
It’s almost as if it has become a great sin to simply think about religious differences instead of mindlessly accepting the idea that all religious experiences are exactly the same.
Contrary to this prevalent bias, Geoffrey Parrinder argues
The important distinctions in mysticism are not so much between the layman and the expert as between the assumptions and the objects of the mystical quest. It is popularly said that all religions are the same though their differences should be evident to unprejudiced eyes and part of their fascination is their diversity.³
Parrinder highlights Martin Buber’s distinction between mystics who say they
- are God (I-It)
- relate to God (I-Thou).
To say there is no difference, Parrinder says, “is like telling a lover that his experience of embracing his beloved is the same as embracing the hedge at the bottom of the garden.”4
Indeed, it is entirely reasonable to question whether one person’s experience (and interpretation of) their alleged encounter with God differs from another person’s. And to say otherwise is just silly.
To draw another analogy, imagine an ancient or medieval astronomer who sees the Andromeda galaxy as we see it today. He or she doesn’t see Andromeda as a magical being or as mysterious cloud. Instead, he or she views Andromeda as a distant group of stars. If this challenges the local dignitaries’ beliefs, the astronomer might be punished, perhaps even killed.
A similar situation arose with Galileo, whose heliocentric theory hit a brick wall with Catholic power brokers who insisted on a Biblical geocentric model of the solar system. These apparently loving and religiously inspired clergy put Galileo under house arrest for the rest of his days, a scene which wasn’t easy for Galileo to deal with.
But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that authoritarian stupidity is alive and well today. Like many short-sighted folk of former times, some people today see themselves as open minded but instantly shut down or react if their pet paradigm is challenged.
Perhaps these narrow-minded individuals find it too scary to envision a broader canvas. Well that’s fine. But problems arise when they hold positions of social power and use their power to trivialize, exploit or oppress those who simply wish to rationally investigate the intriguing idea of mysticism and its sometime companion, sainthood.
1 Sidney Spencer, Mysticism in World Religion (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963: 9). A footnote to my article Krishna, Buddha and Christ mentions the idea of interior perception as described by Catholic saints.
2 Ninian Smart, “Understanding Religious Experience” in Steven Katz, ed., Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978: 11). On the same page Smart adds that many religious experiences happen “out of the blue” to people of no particular tradition. He also says that conversion experiences often occur “at the frontier between non-belonging and belonging to a given tradition.” Thus “we should start with traditions in pinning down religious experience [but] we should not confine religious experience to this area.” Interestingly, the Catholic understanding of conversion is that a Christian exists in “seed form” before becoming fully aware of this ontological fact.
³ Geoffrey Parrinder, Mysticism in the World’s Religions (Oxford: One World, 1995: 192). Parrinder also critiques R. C. Zaehner’s sometimes unreasonable statements about mysticism as found in Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (Oxford, 1957).