Is Mysticism All About the Experience?

In Louise Nelstrop with Kevin Magill and Bradley B. Onishi, Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches, the authors outline some alternatives to thinking of mysticism as wholly about having an experience.

Contextualist Readings: Contextualism is an alternative to perennialism. Perennialism is the belief that the experience that mystics have is, at the bottom, the same across the world, across traditions, and across time. Mystical experience is accessing a shared ultimate reality. Contextualism is the position that, while there is an experience that is central, it does not exist outside of contextualizing factors. Traditions, language, gender, and a host of other things come to bear on the experience, such that there is no "pure" experience at the bottom of it all. Steven Katz is the most articulate representative of this view.

Linguistic Readings: They argue that some writers, notably Denys Turner and Michael Sells, have maintained that mysticism is about the texts, rather than about what the texts attempt to represent. Both focus on the attempts in the texts to speak what cannot be spoken. They, and others, point out that mystics of the past sometimes encourage seekers to reject all experiences, even the most pure. Michel de Certeau also focusses on linguistic representation in mysticism. One question for him concerns what mystical language and texts make possible. This is a "performative" approach to language. The point here is that focussing on the language itself, and not just assuming that the language is a gateway to understand the experience, yields a different kind of study.

Feminist Readings: Nelstrop et al. also discuss feminist readings, of people such as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Caroline Walker Bynum, and Amy Hollywood. In different ways, all these writers see mysticism writing as an expression of women's experience, often the only one possible in a highly structured and patriarchal society. Whereas the tradition of looking at perennialist accounts of mysticism tends to focus on an experience that takes people out of the world, toward the divine, a feminist approach does the opposite. It shows just how much mystical writing was rooted in the physical and bodily world, and as such, provided a means of expression in a space where theology tended to privilege abstract and intellectual experience.

Postmodern Readings: And finally, Nelstrop and company also look at scholars such as Derrida, Marion, Lyotard and others, who see mysticism as a destabalizing phenomenon, rather than as one which confirms a metaphysical view of the world that perennialism commonly argues for (that is, that there is a divine presence, and mystical experience is a guarantee of that).