12. Personal Introduction

Finally, we might have an introduction to a course on mysticism that gives you some of the reasons why I study this stuff. You may think that this is not necessary; after all, we don't ask anyone else about their personal history as the foundation of a course. We don't as a mathematician why he or she got into the area. It is not relevant. Furthermore, we might think this is undesirable. Not only does it not matter why I study mysticism, maybe letting you know why I study it could in some way influence your understanding of it. I'm not being purely objective.

But one thing I've learned from the study of mysticism is that the idea of objectivity itself needs to be questioned. Maybe the personal is, in some way, academic. So all I will say is that there is no reason why my interests or my story has to be anyone else's.

I study mysticism not because of a mystical experience of my own, at least no visionary or illuminative experience. Part of it, I suppose, is because as an undergraduate I fell in with a professor who studied mysticism. James Horne was in some ways an odd student of mysticism. He told me once that he thought he had had a mystical experience at one time, but he wasn't sure. We both wondered whether these experiences would be such that they could not be mistaken. Anyway, his courses were academic. He would teach a course on "the occult", which would attract all sorts of people that thought we would be having seminars in channelling and levitation, and then he used the time to talk about metaphysics. I called it a candy-coated metaphysics course. Someone else said that it was part of the department's Woody Allen series -- Philosophy of Love & Sex, Philosophy of Life, Philosophy of Women, Philosophy of the Occult.

But it was not just having fallen in with someone who worked in the area. I had a pretty conservative religious upbringing, one in which correct doctrine was prized, and I saw from early on that doctrine was not all there was in the world. Being good amounted to not being bad; being human amounted to not straying from the fold. Studying mysticism was a kind of risk in this, because I was always told that mysticism was evil, that only the revelation in the Bible (interpreted by those who knew -- the Catholics had nothing on us) was important. My studies in philosophy first, and mysticism second, pointed me toward the possibility that human existence was more than a structure handed down from generations past. And yet, generations past had something to say to us. Had we missed something?

We had. My study of mysticism was the study of spirituality, the kind that I had not seen in the establishment of good forms. These people I read about had passion. Faith was not religion, but spirituality. I resonated with that, yet I also saw what I considered to be "flaky", trendy spirituality, the kind that latches on to any influence and proclaims itself as the real truth. It seemed to me to be little more than a new dogma. But in mysticism, I saw something more than mere flakiness. If philosophy enabled me to ask questions about my faith that theology never had, mysticism pushed philosophy a step further. Theology told me, "Here's the truth. Don't ask any questions." Philosophy told me "There is no truth. There is nothing but questions. Revel in it." Mysticism, like the synthesis in a Hegelian dialectic, told me "There is truth, but it's nothing like you thought. Even the notion of truth itself has to be rethought."

And so, my own interest in mysticism started as a reaction against my past, but has come to be something more than that. You may be wondering, though. I started off by telling you that I have not had a mystical experience. Have I just been studying it from the outside, then, rather than experiencing it from the inside?

One of the things I've always liked about mysticism is that traditional dichotomies break down. In this case, the objective/subjective split comes under question. Is it either objective, academic research, in which case there is no real reality, but just words about reality, or is it subjective experience, in which there is reality, but no basis for reflection. Although this split may be popular in current talk about mysticism, a quick look at the history of mysticism tells us that mystics themselves reject it.

My way of understanding this is as follows: Academic research and discussion about mysticism is not irrelevant. Mystics talk about a path to understanding. Some of them never even give evidence that they had a point-in-time visionary experience. Many of these mystics express themselves, both before and after their experience, in language that they know to be part of an intellectual tradition. That says to me that understanding does not come from thinking alone, nor does it come from experiencing alone. In some way, there is a dialectic between thinking and experiencing, between the outer and the inner, that leads to the mystical consciousness. And, it should be no surprise that this same mystical consciousness leads back to both thinking and experiencing, both the objective and the subjective.

I have not had a mystical experience; yet, each time I draw on the mystics, I see more of what I call their "radical conservatism". It is radical in the sense that they reach to the root of being human, the roots of faith, and at the same time question and affirm these roots. It is conservative in the sense that they recover or conserve what has been there all along, but has been obscured by so many other concerns.

This, by all accounts, is the strangest introduction to this course of all that I have given. It doesn't really tell you what we are doing. Yet, I think that this introduction may tell you more about this course than any of them. As we go through this course, you may find that there is a dichotomy between thinking of this as an academic subject, and thinking of it in more personal terms. Don't try to ignore that dichotomy. That's part of the point.