What on Earth is Mysticism?

David Boulton wrote this review of Don Cupitt's 'Mysticism after Modernity' for the Spring 1998 issue of SoF magazine.

This is a timely book. It came out at the end of last year (though it bears this year's date), and challenges us to think through what on earth we are talking about when we use such woolly and imprecise terms as "spirituality", "religious experience" and "mysticism". Not long ago these were specifically religious terms, used by people who thought of themselves as religious. Today, and particularly in the wake of the Diana phenomenon, everyone thinks they are into spirituality.

It has become commonplace to talk of "the spiritual dimension"—though rather less common to define it. Public figures as disparate as the lying arms salesman Jonathan Aitken and sex icon Madonna are said to have discovered spirituality. Where once it was enough to have a pretty face and the right shape to make it as an actress or model, your CV is now incomplete without a reference to deep spirituality. Soon you'll be able to buy a jar of the stuff at your local supermarket.

Don Cupitt starts where you'd expect him to start: by reminding us that spirituality and religious experience and mysticism are words, little pieces of language which have grown and developed out of other bits of language. It helps to find out when these terms were first used, and to figure out what they were supposed to refer to. We are, of course, reminded that what-they-are-supposed-to-refer-to is other words: the notion of non-linguistic experience or non-verbal thought has been so comprehensively demolished in the last thirty years that we can only revisit the territory by climbing on board H.G. Wells's time machine and engaging reverse gear.

So Cupitt's project is to explore mysticism and spirituality in our post-modern context. But because the terms are pre-post-modern, we cannot get a grip on what they can mean today, "after modernity" (as the book's title puts it), until we have explored their history and development in pre-modern and modern times. The obvious starting point, then, is the medieval mystics. What was it that made them "mystics", what did their "mysticism" amount to? What did they think they were up to, and what do we think they were up to?

Don turns to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1958) and looks up "mysticism", where he finds 37 mystics listed. The New Columbia Encyclopaedia (1975 edition) lists 50. What do they have in common? A conventional "modern" answer might be that all of them—Eckhart, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, Julian of Norwich and so on—had some special gift for effing the ineffable, for describing some direct experience of "God" or "Beyond" or "Other". They penetrated beyond language, reached behind and beyond the world of words. But how could we ever have believed such self-evident nonsense? "The notion that there are or can be, either in mystical rapture or after death, extra-linguistic psychological states or experiences that verify beliefs about God will not bear scrutiny. To think it, we'd have to 'put it into words', which would drag it down into language... We cannot think ourselves clear of language. Only language can turn an event into an experience of something."

Far from offering "descriptions of language-transcending experiences", the canon of mystics did exactly the opposite: they were not word-deniers but wordsmiths, writers. They were "people highly conscious of language, people who convey their message, not by pointing to something outside language, but by the way they play games with language". (After all, if they had not been writers, we would know nothing of them).

But what kind of writer? What differentiates them from the legion of writers on dogmatic theology? What marks the mystics, Cupitt suggests, is, first, their subversive intent. Theirs is a writing of protest: protest in particular against the institutionalised church, its hierarchies and patriarchies (see how many mystics were women!), its clogged-up, dogmatic, prosaic, literal, realist notions of God and humankind. But theirs was a coded protest. The language they used was the language of the Church, but it was used to undermine the Church. The Church understood this very well once it had learnt to crack the code. That's why it burned them when it could, and rehabilitated or even canonised them only when they had been safely reduced to an urn of ashes or a bone in a reliquary.

Also, unlike the dogmatic theologians, they were often poets, playing with the words they used, exploiting their ambiguities, revelling in multiple meanings, and giving their work that extra charge that comes from the controlled use of rhythm and repetition. And, to repeat the point, an unusually high proportion were women, in an age when women's voices had little chance of being heard in either the religious or the secular community. Much medieval mysticism is expressed in the form of lyric love poetry, often intensely and explicitly erotic. So, in Cupitt's summing up, "mysticism is protest, female eroticism, and piety, all at once, in writing. Writing, I say, and not 'immediate experience', that Modern fiction".

How did we arrive at that "modern fiction" (which is still so pervasive that many liberals and radicals, and even many members of the Sea of Faith Network, continue to think of mysticism and spirituality as pointing to something "above" or "beyond" words)? Cupitt's argument runs rather as follows (though my clumsy summary can hardly do it justice):

Early-modernity began when the absolutism of the medieval period collapsed. The protestant-ism of the mystics gave way to Protestantism, which soon found that liberation from absolutism produced new, modern problems. For instance, if the absolute authority of the Church could no longer be invoked, the old evidences and proofs of the existence of another world and of God himself were left hanging without visible means of support. The Modern project was to find and validate such supports. It found them in the notion of "direct experience": we can know there is a God and another world, not because the Church and the Bible say so, but because we can experience them. We are all mystics now.

The early-moderns actually invented experience, as we now understand the word, to shape this idea. Until the sixteenth or seventeenth century, "to experience" something was to test it, to try it, to experiment with it. ("This I knew experimentally", said George Fox, meaning "This I knew by trying it out and finding that it worked"). Experience, until that point, had always been active: "an experience" was an experiment you performed, and "to experience" was to perform the experiment. But by the end of the seventeenth century, and up to the present day, experience has been largely thought of as passive: something that happens to you, something that arrives and you receive. So this kind of "experience" is fairly new, specifically "modern", and datable to a particular cultural phenomenon.

The phrase "religious experience" is even newer. Cupitt finds its first recorded use in 1809 in A Diary of the Religious Experience of Mary Waring. An evangelical Protestant, Mary Waring thinks of her religious experience as something which is really too great for words (so she writes a diary to describe in words what cannot be described in words!). George Eliot, in Scenes of Clerical Life (1858) also refers to people who "had gained a religious vocabulary rather than religious experience", thus distinguishing, as Cupitt comments, "between 'mere words', which are only secondary packaging, and 'real things'. But how could 'real things' ever come to be and be recognised by us, except by the agency of words defining them and making them identifiable?"

The phrase "religious experience" shifted meaning when William James used it in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Here, for the first time, religious experience (and spirituality, for that matter) is understood not as something descending on you from a wordless Above but as something produced from within, from one's psychology, which is shaped by language. For James, and for most people for most of the rest of the twentieth century, "religious experience" is treated, says Cupitt, "in an immanent way and as a function or capacity of human nature, much like 'aesthetic experience' or 'moral experience'.". Religious experience (and spirituality, and mysticism) is naturalised: liberated from supernaturalism and classical realism.

But today the modernist project has collapsed in on itself. In the face of cultural pluralism and relativity we have come to understand that there are no absolute foundations, just the best contingent foundations we can cobble together at any one time. "The kind of religion and the kind of mysticism that sought for something that is eternally primary is out-of-date". We need instead a "mysticism of secondariness... a thorough-going and free-floating relativism embraced with rapturous joy", in which we "give up the idea that mysticism is a special wordless way of intuitively knowing the things of another and higher world. We may discover that we no longer wish to go beyond. We do not hunger for 'absolutes'." Instead, we are happy with a "mysticism minus metaphysics, mysticism minus any claim to special or privileged knowledge, and mysticism without any other world than this one". (Or, to adapt the Quaker Universalist adage, "if there is another world it is this one").

Is this a total break with the past? Not at all. The link between the medieval mystics and our post-modern view is stronger than may at first appear. What Eckhart was doing was "something very like deconstruction, and very like the radical theology of the past two centuries. He lived (as we still live) in a period when the religious System was old, overgrown, deeply unhappy, alienating and alienated. He sought to write his way and ours out of its tyranny and into religious happiness". And if Eckhart was "the very first Western teacher of the mysticism of secondariness", perhaps the nineteenth century Lutheran Ludwig Feuerbach was the second: "God, immortality, freedom... exist only in the heart. The heart is itself the existence of God, the existence of immortality. Satisfy yourself with this existence! You do not understand your heart; therein lies the evil. You desire a real, external, objective immortality, a God out of yourselves; here is the source of delusion". Not D. Cupitt's words but those of England's greatest novelist George Eliot, translating Feuerbach's masterpiece The Essence of Christianity in 1841. (What a tragedy it was that the churches treated Feuerbach like a medieval mystic and consigned him to hell-fire, leaving Marx to pluck him as a brand from the burning, only to mutilate his inspired message!).

Mysticism after Modernity is lucid and a delight to read. It provides the best possible grounding for those wishing to explore "What on earth is Spirituality?" (But make sure you order the paperback, unless you have 40 to spare for the hardback).

Click button for printer-friendly version of this article
Registered charity number 1113177
© All Sea of Faith material is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence