2. Religious/Theological Introduction

Most courses in mysticism in universities are taught in departments of religious studies or comparative religion. Note that it is relatively rare for mysticism to be studied in departments of theology or in seminaries -- it is still a threat to orthodoxy. The study of mysticism, for the most part, is the study of religion, both institutional and personal. In fact, it may be the struggle between the institutional and the personal in some cases. Nevertheless, one way to understand the history of religion is to understand how doctrine affects mystical experience, and vice versa. What we now think of as a marginal set of experiences or beliefs, in other times were probably the beliefs of most of the population, apart from the priests. So, we have the history of how people actually conducted and experienced religion, rather than the history of how a few men wrote about it.

The discussion of the religious implications of mysticism goes beyond understanding the relationship between institutional and personal religion. Some mysticism, after all, has been institutionalized, and some dogma has been personalized. The religious discussion also includes the way mysticism has sprung from and has been included in religious rites. It includes reflection on what was revealed in the mystical experience. And, it means reflection on the relationship between mystical experience and other kinds of religious experience. Basically, the religious discussion of mysticism is concerned with meaning rather than with mechanism.

At the same time, as was the case for the "philosophical" introduction, mystics have always been in conversation with the theological establishment. Some mystical writing (and, perhaps even experience) has grown out of doctrine (e.g. the council of Nicea). Some doctrine has grown out of or been influenced by mystical experience (e.g. the veneration of Mary, the cult of the saints).