Teaching Mysticism

Teaching Mysticism

Teaching Mysticism

Teaching Mysticism

Synopsis

The term ''mysticism'' has never been consistently defined or employed, either in religious traditions or in academic discourse. The essays in this volume offer ways of defining what mysticism is, as well as methods for grappling with its complexity in a classroom. This volume addresses the diverse literature surrounding mysticism in four interrelated parts. The first part includes essays on the tradition and context of mysticism, devoted to drawing out and examining the mystical element in many religious traditions. The second part engages traditions and religio-cultural strands in which ''mysticism'' is linked to other terms, such as shamanism, esotericism, and Gnosticism. The volume's third part focuses on methodological strategies for defining ''mysticism,'' with respect to varying social spaces. The final essays show how contemporary social issues and movements have impacted the meaning, study, and pedagogy of mysticism. Teaching Mysticism presents pedagogical reflections on how best to communicate mysticism from a variety of institutional spaces. It surveys the broad range of meanings of mysticism, its utilization in the traditions, the theories and methods that have been used to understand it, and provides critical insight into the resulting controversies.

Excerpt

Mysticism. At first glance, the meaning of the term seems readily apparent. With respect to etymology, the term is of Greek origin. Initially mystikos, derived from the verb muo (to close), lacked any direct reference to the transcendent, referring only to the hidden or secret dimensions of ritualistic activities. As Louis Bouyer (1980) notes, the link between mysticism and the vision of the Divine was introduced by the early church fathers, who used the term as an adjective (mystical theology, mystical contemplation) and defined it with respect to three interrelated contexts: biblical, liturgical, and spiritual. Importantly, access to God was always understood as taking place within a total religious matrix. It was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that one finds the term mysticism (la mystique) used as a substantive. Michel de Certeau (1992) reminds us that this shift was linked to a new discourse that framed contemplative fi gures as social types (“the mystics”) and the emergence of a new understanding of the Divine as existing within human beings, a universal dimension of the deepest recesses of the mind hidden beneath the variety of religious traditions and their doctrines. These shifts paved the way for mysticism to be investigated comparatively and with respect to secular social spaces, which is to say both academically and scientifically. Thus it is that, at least in a conversational sense, one could point to St. Teresa of Avila, the Zen master Dogen, the Sufi al-Hallaj, or the Hindu sage Sri Aurobindo as “mystics”; the Enneads, the Upanisads, or the Zohar as classic “mystical texts”; and Ramakrishna’s vision of Kali, St. Paul’s ascent to Paradise, and Buddha’s attainment of Nirvana as examples of “mystical experiences.”

Yet what might at times seem to be a straightforward phenomenon exhibiting an unambiguous commonality has become, at least within the academic study of religion, opaque and controversial on multiple levels. For example, a cursory perusal of the literature reveals that different religious traditions use the term in different ways, whereas others do not use it at all. Some also call . . .

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