Mysticism and Modernity


It has only been in the past hundred or so years that mysticism has been the focus of academic study, or indeed a unified phenomenon. Previously, people may have recognized that different religious and cultural traditions had ecstatic experiences ("ex-stasis" = being taken out of something, usually the body). But these were seen as originating from the religion or tradition itself.


The beginning of the study of mysticism as we think of it today was in the attempt to identify what unified religious experience across traditions. Schleiermacher wrote On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers in response to the Enlightenment rejection or diminishment of religion. He saw religion as a particular kind of feeling. He is sometimes seen as the father of modern Protestant theology, and indeed, the study of mysticism began as a particularly Protestant/philosophical affair. Catholic thought tended to regard mysticism as spirituality, and as the extension of proper doctrine and practice.


The modern study of mysticism as the search for the fundamental aspects of religion ties closely to the priorities of modernity itself. For one, in modernity there is the tendency to search for the foundation of things, or the constitutive components. This is true in science (as we search for the general laws of the universe), in art (as we search for the fundamental nature of aesthetic experience, and also for the most basic or formal characteristics of visual experience), in ethics (as we search for the basic principles of action). Kant is important in all of these, and without him, we would have no modern analysis of religion in general or mysticism in particular.


It is also worth noting that the study of mysticism is not only about finding the foundations of things, but then also finding how seemingly different experiences across the world have elements in common. As with science, if you figure out what is basic about motion (for instance), then that should be applicable everywhere. The same becomes true of the study of mysticism. 20th century scholars look for what is universal in experience. Mysticism in particular lends itself to this, in that the experience of many mystics is expressed as universal in the first place.


But there is another, opposite, pressure on the development of the study of mysticism, and it has existed since the beginning of modernity. For many, modernity represents a time when human meaning becomes much less clear. Where once God was woven into the fabric of reality, now reality can be accounted for using mechanistic principles. There is a strong push toward mysticism, and toward scholarship of mysticism, in the face of this alienation that people feel in the modern scientific world.


There were several seminal works that established the study of mysticism as a scholarly field:

1. Baron von Hügel, a German scholar, wrote on Catherine of Genoa (The Mystical Element of Religion) near the end of the 19th century. His work, like Schleiermacher's, was actually an attempt to find the unifying core of religion. He argued that mysticism lay at the bottom of all religion.


2. William James gave a series of lectures that were published in 1901 as The Varieties of Religious Experience. He gave a kind of overview of religious life, and devoted significant space to mystical experience. James was a pragmatist, and as such he was interested in the way that truth was a function of how things worked. His take on mysticism was almost phenomenological, in that he was more interested in describing the experience that people had than he was in speculating about its origin.


3. Evelyn Underhill wrote a long work, titled Mysticism, that was first published in 1910 and went into 12 editions. She gave an overview of historical (mostly Christian) mystics.