Tuesday, 19 February 2013.
18:00 until 20:00
Grimond lecture theatre 2, University of Kent Canterbury, UK
The word ‘mysticism’ is part of our common linguistic currency; yet do we really have any idea what it means?
For over a century scholars have set their intellect and intuition (and occasionally their experience) to investigating this troublesome term, its troublesome meaning, and the even more troublesome implications of what it means, and yet the scholars tend to begin their investigations by puzzling over exactly what it is that they are investigating.
There is a long tradition of scholarship, pioneered by William Inge and William James at the end of the 19th Century, to define mysticism according to key characteristics. However, these defining characteristics are often themselves vague and difficult to define. That is to say, if ‘noetic’ is one of the meanings of mysticism, then we need a separate investigation to determine the meaning of ‘noetic’. Furthermore, these terms are often refuted by the proceeding scholar’s defining characteristics.
Similarly, whilst there are lists of things that mysticism is, there are lists of things that mysticism is not.
For example, Evelyn Underhill (1912) was insistent that the term mysticism should not be applied ‘to “menticulture” and sorcery, dreamy poetry and mediaeval art, to prayer and palmistry, the doctrinal excesses of Gnosticism, and the tepid speculations of the Cambridge Platonists – even, according to William James, to the higher branches of intoxication.’
Stace (1960), meanwhile, insisted that ‘mysticism is not any sort of hocus-pocus such as we commonly associate with claims to be the elucidation of sensational mysteries. Mysticism is not the same as what is commonly called the “occult” – whatever that may mean. Nor has it anything to do with spiritualism, or ghosts, or table-turning. Nor does it include what are commonly called parapsychological phenomena such as telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition. These are not mystical phenomena.’
However, if we look at mystics and their mystical writings, we generally find that these psi phenomena are precisely what grants them their mystical label. Swedenborg, it may be suggested, would be a forgotten long-winded theologian were it not for his dazzling psychic abilities, in particular, his communication with the dead.
How is one to make sense of this tremendously heterogeneous and often contradictory scholarship? And if we wish to understand mysticism, should we really consult the scholars or the mystics themselves? But how do we know who is a mystic if we haven’t consulted the scholarship?
Likewise, is a ‘mystical’ text necessarily the product of a ‘mystic’? What is a mystical text? What is a mystic? Can a text itself be mystical, or is it merely the description of a mystical state? Can there be a mystical reading of a non-mystical text, and vice-versa? If, for example, a reader experiences something profoundly ‘mystical’ in reading a text, what would be the implications of finding out that the text were a parody of mystical texts? Where is the mystical nexus that connects the author the text and the reader?
What on earth is mysticism?