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date: 25 March 2017

The Comparative Study of Mysticism

Summary and Keywords

The comparative study of mysticism began in the mid-19th century, with the development of the modern meaning of the word, which had begun to be used as a substantive, with the classification of “mystics” in the 17th century. This differed from the traditional Greek Christian use of the adjective mystikos, to qualify rituals, scriptures, sacraments, and theology as “mystical” contexts of the human encounter with the Divine. This modern shift highlighted the personal experience of ultimate Reality, rather than the sociocultural context. Certain individuals claimed to encounter the Divine or spiritual realities more directly, separate from traditional mediums of religious experience. The study of this phenomenon tended in the early 20th century to focus on the psychology and the phenomenology of the personal experience, generally described as an altered state of consciousness with specific characteristics, processes, stages, effects, and stimulants. This emphasis on common features influenced the development of perennialist and traditionalist theorists, who saw evidence of the same experiential origin, fundamental principles, or epistemology among major world religions. Some essentialist views of mysticism argued that a pure consciousness-experience of undifferentiated unity or non-duality is the core feature of all mysticism, in contrast to other religious experiences. Reaction to these positions led to contextualist or constructivist views of mysticism, which presume the sociocultural character of mysticism. In its most extreme form, the contextualist perspective suggests that all mystical experiences among traditions are different, given diverse socio-religious categories that overdetermine the experience. In turn, some critical scholarship has proposed qualifications to contextualism within the context of a general acceptance of many of its tenets, even among many theorists with essentialist tendencies.

Up to the late 20th century, much scholarship in the area tended to downplay the sociocultural features of mysticism, emphasizing the psychological dynamics and an individual, disembodied, and radically transcendent ideal. This brought into question the relationship of morality to mystical experience and raised concerns about the status of entheogens—the use of psychoactive drugs in religious contexts. Interest in the comparative study of mysticism has also extended into the area of neuroscience, where researchers explore electro-chemical brain states associated with mystical experience, in proposing evidence of a mystical neurological substrate. But the essentialist/contextualist debate also moved the comparative study of mysticism beyond issues of epistemology, consciousness-states, ontology, and cognitive neuroscience, broadening the field to include other aspects of religious experience. Some studies have brought feminist concerns to bear on the discussion, insofar as women’s mysticism has been overshadowed and even repressed by men, and was seen to preclude legitimate experiential possibilities of a more embodied character. Related scholarship in history and depth psychology has focused creatively on the nature and significance of erotic elements of mysticism in comparative studies, with special attention to associated physical phenomena and their transformative dynamics. Similarly, more embodied features of comparative mysticism are the subject of transpersonal psychology, which draws on many humanistic disciplines and supports participatory approaches to the field. Transpersonal psychology remains open to claims that the ego can be transcended in movements into higher states of being that ideally involve personal/spiritual enhancement and integration. Also, some more recent proponents of new comparative theology advocate methods that engage the scholar in specific beliefs or practices of another tradition, and include subsequent clarification and elaboration of one’s own perspective in light of such comparative study, in exploring phenomena related to comparative mystical experience.

Keywords: mysticism and spirituality, comparative mysticism, numinous experience, nature mysticism, mystical essentialism, mystical contextualism, entheogens, morality and mysticism, mystical feminism, mysticism and the erotic

Historical Origins

The comparative study of mysticism is a modern phenomenon that is probably most influenced by the thought of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) for its methodological emphasis. Drawing upon ideas from German Romanticism, Schleiermacher characterizes the essence of religion to be an immediate pre-rational consciousness of “the infinite world”—a mystical experience that incites emotions and immediate reflections that underlie and support other aspects of religion. He writes of a “natal hour of everything living in religion,” where primal experiences are “made present” by the “intuitions and feelings that develop out of such moments.”1 “Mysticism” comes to be understood as an essential type of religious experience within popular classifications of religious phenomena that become refined and well developed by the end of the 20th century: the material, the social, the ethical-legal, the doctrinal, the liturgical-ritual, the scriptural-mythological, and the experiential or spiritual dimensions of religion.2 Louis Dupré, for example, claims: “The drive toward mystical union is the vital principle of all religious life. Without it religion withers away in sterile ritualism or arid moralisms.”3

Schleiermacher was working with a modern meaning of “mysticism,” which had begun to be used as a substantive, with the classification of “mystics” in the 17th century. This differed from traditional Greek Christian uses of the adjective mystikos (“hidden”, “secret” or “private”), to qualify rituals, scriptures, sacraments, or theology, as “mystical” contexts of the human encounter of the Divine. Given this premodern history of the word, some historians insist that Christian mysticism was always located in some sociocultural historical context, never solely “in ineffable states of feeling,” nor was it ever “reduced by the [Church] Fathers to the level of a psychological experience, considered merely, or primarily, in its subjectivity.”4 Denys Turner insists that, in the Christian medieval apophatic tradition, “the ‘mystical’ is an exoteric dynamic within the ordinary, as being the negative dialectics of the ordinary.”5 Also, some philosophers of mysticism have vigorously debated the plausibility and coherence of claims about a non-linguistic affective religious consciousness or intuition that precedes and is separable from intellectual constructions.6

Yet, despite these claims and issues, it is clear that there has always been a significant subjective and individual psychological component to those phenomena later classified as “mystical” in the Christian tradition—what Origen describes as “ineffable and mystical visions” and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite influentially portrays as ineffable “knowledge of divine things.” Other theologians and philosophers from the 2nd century on refer to it as an intellectual vision or intellectual intuition—a “non-discursive mental act involving a direct cognitive contact with the object of contemplation.” In contemporary creative phenomenology, Jean-Luc Marion analyzes intuitions that he associates with “saturated phenomena”, including those of the mystic. Such phenomena, argues Marion, are “characterized by the uncontrollable excess of intuition within them, above and beyond all of the meanings that we will ever be able to assign to them [saturation].” A mystical, saturated, phenomenon “bedazzles the gaze”, overwhelms concepts, escapes normal categorization and sensible formation, and evokes veneration.7 Presumably, Schleiermacher attempted to articulate this kind of phenomenon, and many scholars in this modern shift tended to highlight in their studies the personal, subjective, and direct experience of God, rather than the sociocultural contexts that colored or contextualized the experience.

The category of “mysticism” came into English usage by the mid-18th century as a criticism of devotional fervor or enthusiasm, and some writers began to use the term in reference to the disparagement of what they perceived to be small groups of contemplatives inclined toward heterodoxy, while others, such as Thomas Hartley and William Law, defended the spirituality and significance of these “mystics.”8 Michel De Certeau notes that the word implied “a distancing from established Church authority” and indicated “a unity of modern lay reaction before sacred institutions,” while Don Cupitt claims it was always “a subversive and transgressive kind of writing.”9 Influential 19th-century books that developed mysticism as a significant category of religious experience are Robert Albert Vaughan’s 1856 two-volume survey, Hours with the Mystics, Victor Cousin’s 1858 Cours de philosophie sur le fondement des idées absolues du vrai, du beau et du bien, and Edward Henry Palmer’s 1867 Oriental Mysticism, which focuses on the Islamic context. Vaughan claims “that all the forms of mysticism are developments of the religious sentiment,” where the primary focus is the direct nature of the human relationship to the Divine. There is an “unconscious unity of mystical temperaments in every communion,” he writes, “[t]hrough all the changes of doctrine and the long conflict of creeds,” and despite a wide variety of types, which he outlines in his book: Oriental, Neo-Platonist, Greek, Latin, German, Persian, Theosophist, Spanish, Quietist, English, and Swedenborgian.10 A very similar classification system is reflected in the 1858 Encyclopedia Britannica.11

In the United States, the New England Transcendental Movement in the first half of the 19th century developed a sense of the mystical that was influenced constructively by religions of India and included aspirations to uncover essential mental and spiritual principles of human nature that underlie symbol, ritual, and dogma of diverse religions.12 Influenced by themes in Buddhism, Hermeticism, occult literature, and Hinduism, the Theosophical Society developed in the second half of the 19th century a syncretic spirituality that emphasizes mystical knowledge and the study of comparative religion.13 Influential writings by Unitarian preacher Octavius Frothingham and Harvard professor James Freeman Clarke treated mysticism as a trans-religious phenomenon, where the individual is elevated experientially into a consciousness that underlies exoteric religion. Leigh Eric Schmidt characterizes this historical thread as “the nineteenth-century [religious liberal] invention of mysticism as the fountainhead of all genuine spirituality,” while Michel de Certeau speaks of the possible “fabrication” of a mystical tradition.14

However, there are other scholars who would perceive it more to be the 19th-century creative discovery or focus upon mysticism as a core personal experience underlying all genuine spirituality. Even if the modern concept of mysticism were wholly a social construction created for scholarly analytic purposes, it is a field that certainly gives apt voice to a phenomenon that has been present to human spiritual experience since very ancient times—that is, a private and individual condition of consciousness with significant affective and communal components, be it intertwined historically with the contemplation of scripture, the practice of liturgy, ascetic activities, contemplative meditation, or other religious activity. Moreover, some scholars think it important at least to remain open to the possibility that actual spiritual realities or aspects of a person’s unconscious or collective unconscious might also contribute to the construction of the meaning of mysticism—that mysticism might involve key influences beyond social construction.

Naturally, then, given these historical developments, the study of this phenomenon tended in the early 20th century to attend especially (though not exclusively) to the psychology and the phenomenology of a personal individual experience, generally described as an altered state of consciousness with specific characteristics, processes, stages, effects, and stimulants. Influential figures include William James, Evelyn Underhill, and Rufus Jones. Jones speaks of a transcendence of finite reality and normal self-awareness into an undifferentiated “matrix consciousness” that transcends perception and thought and has its closest resemblance to enhanced aesthetic appreciation. He defines it formally as a “type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness or relation with God, on direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence. It is religion in its most acute, intense, and living stage.”15 Jones, a Quaker, appears to be speaking from personal awareness when he suggests mysticism is not an uncommon experience of genuine, living faith, one that provides the inspiration and vitality for the individual and institutional religion, though he also acknowledges and explores abnormal and even pathological aspects of mysticism. Underhill’s understanding of key features of mysticism is similar and she herself was also a mystic, but her method in her popular opus, Mysticism (1911), focuses on what she takes to be the transformative dynamics of mysticism, rather than surveying significant historical movements and individuals, in the manner of Jones’s Studies in Mystical Religion (1909).

Both scholars are very selective in their approach to the subject, a method that has come under criticism in some contemporary critiques, which also tend to censure the lack of attention that these pioneering surveys of mysticism give to the sociocultural context of mystics.16 These concerns are somewhat tempered when one considers that the intention of these works are to illuminate the nature and dynamics of what they took to be transformative religious experiences associated with certain notable historical figures, with special attention to cognitive phenomenology. Moreover, Jones was quite aware that the environment colors and shapes the mystics’ personal experience. Prefiguring contextual theories of mysticism, he writes for example: “There are no experiences of any sort which are independent of preformed expectations or unaffected by the prevailing beliefs of the time. Every bit of our inner or outer life, however much it is our own, is shot through with lines of colour due to social and racial suggestions . . . Mystical experiences will be, perforce, saturated with the dominant ideas of the group to which the mystic belongs, and they will reflect the expectations of that group and that period.”17

In contrast to other early 20th-century writers such as William Ralph Inge, Friederich von Hügel, and Edward Cuthbert Butler, who are more concerned about the relation of Christian mysticism to historical, institutional, and intellectual/theological aspects of religion,18 the fundamental interest of Underhill in Mysticism and Practical Mysticism (1914) is to uncover and articulate the personal and private characteristics of mystical “experience.” In Mysticism, which is subtitled The Preeminent Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, Underhill categorizes major types of mysticism and their transformative dynamics. Underhill’s interest in vitalistic theories of Hans Driesch, Henri Bergson, and Rudolph Eucken bring an emphasis on spiritual dynamism as the essence of Reality and on the “evolution of the mystic consciousness”—its “organic growth”—that, she claims, enables an awareness of this “Divine Immanence and its travail.”19 This categorization is closely paralleled by Richard Maurice Bucke’s “cosmic consciousness,” R. C. Zaehner’s “panenhenic” mysticism, and W. T. Stace’s “extrovertive” mysticism, all of which explore the mystic’s altered state sense of interconnection or unity with the “essence” of the natural world.

Underhill distinguishes generally this mysticism of “Becoming” from a mysticism of “Being,” which involves, she writes, a contrasting “power of apprehending the Absolute, Pure Being, the utterly Transcendent” underlying this creative will. She suggests that these differences, as well as those between personal or non-personal descriptions of the dynamic, are largely subjectively determined by the predisposition and interpretive framework of mystics.20 “Mysticism is the art of union with Reality,” she observes generally, in highlighting resemblances of mysticism to aesthetic practices and experience.21 She quotes Edouard Récécjac, who writes of “the Beautiful” becoming “the sublime,” when the mind identifies itself in an ideal fashion with the object of aesthetic perception, and is lifted beyond itself, “in an ontological vision which closely resembles the Absolute of the mystics.”22 Underhill also emphasizes the cross-cultural and inter-religious nature of mysticism, drawing on some mystical discourse from non-Christian traditions, though largely emphasizing the writings of Christian mystics in her analysis. Underhill’s Mysticism adapts traditional Christian phases of mysticism, framing a developmental dynamic that illustrates and analyzes stages of conversion, purgation, illumination, dark night, and union, in terms of an increasing self-surrender of the mystic to spiritual Reality. She grants lower status to visionary experiences and to experiences of “ecstasy” and “rapture.” The former are unusual or paranormal kinds of experiences that come in the form of images or voices in dreams, prayer, or meditation, typically of popular religious figures, narratives, or various kinds of spiritual presences, while the latter are more embodied and dynamically affective experiences, which include trance, absorption, excitement, radical delight, and bliss. In contrast to both these mystic phenomena, higher experiences of the unitive life are disembodied, non-sensory, and introvertive. They are characterized by a more extreme self-surrender and passivity that involves a radical peace, calmness, or contemplative quietude that is marked by spiritual infusion and consequent empowerment.

In her general characterizations of mysticism, Underhill is influenced by William James’s Gifford lectures (1902) on Natural Religion, which depict mysticism as the “root and centre” of religious experience, in developing four marks of the phenomenon. Mystical experiences are indescribable altered states of consciousness analogous to feeling-sensation that must be directly experienced to be known (ineffable); they involve inarticulate intuitive insights or illuminations that are authoritative (noetic quality) and associated with structural paradox and oppositions; they are intermittent and of limited duration (transciency), though markedly affective; and they include a radical self-surrender (passivity), whereby the personal will is opened, inspired, infused, and directed by a higher power—what Louis Massignon characterizes as “an initiation in ‘mental scouring’” and the practical axiom of mysticism.23 Critics of James’s perspective question the efficacy of some of these demarcations in marking these experiences off from non-mystical experiences: they propose other general characteristics of mysticism, they claim that mysticism is not fundamentally a feeling-state, and they argue that it is but one phenomenon in the history of religion and not the core. However, James provides a colorful, fascinating, and influential introduction to the field. He raises interesting questions about the relation of drugs and paranormal phenomena to mysticism and about the status of “diabolical” mysticism. James speaks of a “very wide” range of experience, drawing examples from various religions and other cultural settings, and he proposes a “mystical ladder,” where “mystical states in general assert a pretty distinct theoretical drift” toward “monism,” and imageless mysticism is ranked higher than those with images.24

Orientalism and the Nature of Mystical Experiences

Western hegemony in the early comparative study of mysticism determined the reading of Asian religions, which ensured that the dominant comparative models embodied Western assumptions, values, and intentions. In clarifying the colonial and postcolonial tendencies of “Orientalism,” Edward Said warns of the “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” through academic and other literary means.25 In the case of the comparative study of mysticism, the major issues at least initially were the coloring of these studies by Christian intentions or biases that typically included a preference for theistic beliefs and practices and the limited or even distorted knowledge of Asian spiritualities. The dangers were in (mis)reading Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, or any of the “other” mysticisms through limited translations and the lens of Christian anthropology and theology. Clearly, mysticism in Asian traditions was explored largely in the light of the Western focus in the early 20th century on individual psychology and phenomenology.26 Even prominent (Western influenced) Indians such as Sri Aurobindo Ghose, Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, Surendranath Dasgupta, and Swami Siddheswarananda, as well as Japanese Buddhist comparativists D. T. Suzuki and Masao Abe, leaned heavily in that direction. Still, early comparativists explored many good questions and moved discussions along in interesting directions, and Christian biases generally would eventually be downplayed considerably or at least acknowledged by many scholars.

One of the main questions that develop is that of definition: what is constitutive of mystic phenomena? In an appendix of his book Christian Mysticism (1899), William Inge lists twenty brief definitions of mysticism and six of mystical theology, highlighting the historical ambiguity of the subject. In his account, William James excludes aspects of spiritualism and the paranormal—“visual and auditory hallucinations, verbal and graphic automatisms, and such marvels as ‘levitation’, stigmatization, and the healing of disease”—citing the fact that these can occur in individuals who are not experiencing mystical noetic factors.27 More recent research by Ann Taves on the topic of religious experience in the history of Anglo-American Protestantism highlights very well how these various kinds of phenomena can be studied in detail with very little reference to mysticism and without explicitly marking them off from mysticism.28 Like James, W. T. Stace, writing in the 1950s, claims that mysticism has nothing to do with parapsychology or spiritualism, and he also excludes visionary experiences, citing Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, who give priority to imageless union.29 Stace’s view is countered by the facts that Teresa and John, though they do treat voices and visions as inferior and precarious, do not preclude them as possibly legitimate mystical phenomena, and that many mystics historically have been purported to possess parapsychological powers. Herbert Thurston evaluates extensive and well-supported documentation of historical cases of alleged luminous phenomena, incorruptions, stigmata, levitation, telekinesis, bodily elongation, resistance to flames and heat, and other abnormal phenomena associated with Christian mysticism.30 Minimally, one is wont to ask why various bodily phenomena and paranormal occurrences are often connected with mystical experience, and later theorists question such narrow definitions of mysticism and mystical realities.

Jeffrey Kripal notes how “the subject of the paranormal invokes” the category of the “sacred”—Rudolph Otto’s sense of the “Holy,” suggesting that the spiritual and mystical are “cousin-categories” of the occult, the psychical, and the paranormal, and “should be studied alongside” each other.31 In creatively exploring these intersections, Jess Byron Hollenback notes a common source in the meditative “recollective act,” where the person is focussing her or his faculties in a one-pointed fashion. He makes a case that the imagination that is sometimes associated with mystical states of consciousness can lead apparently to veridical supernormal perceptions and knowledge, which brings into question the naturalistic “assumption of positivism and psychologism that perception is a purely passive reception of sense-data.”32 Regardless of the status of these controversial claims, Hollenback’s work highlights well how definitions of mysticism determine the kinds of questions one can ask about it and the subject matter associated with it.

In line with the thought of Stace, Ninian Smart maintains that mysticism altogether excludes sense-experience and mental images, which distinguishes it from prophetism, sacramentalism, and bhakti traditions or devotionalism, as well as from paranormal phenomena.33 Although Smart claims that these various aspects of religious life might intermingle with mysticism, this distinction follows from his major typological contrast between mystical and numinous experience, which he proposes in Reasons and Faith (1958). Developed by Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy (1917), the “numinous” is regarded as fundamental to religion, a purely felt-experience which denotes the “object” of an immediate awareness to be divine power or will, numen. That is the traditional sense of heilige—“holy”—the non-rational and utterly mysterious wholly other—the “clear overplus of meaning” which precedes the moral and rational connotations of the word. Although the experience is ineffable, Otto speaks of a definite feeling-content that one can express through analogical language. Along with other ideograms, this non-rational sense of the “holy” gives voice to natural feelings akin to “deeply felt religious experience.” These include feelings associated with the expressions mysterium (extraordinary, unfamiliar, beyond comprehension), tremendum (awe, fear, dread, might), fascinans (attraction, enchantment), and majestas (worship, adoration, honor, dependence). Otto speaks of “creature-feeling” or “creature-consciousness” to highlight the extremely subservient orientation in the face of a Reality that differs in such a radically qualitative manner. He speaks of “stupor,” “blank wonder,” and “astonishment.”34

Otto’s phenomenological analysis of these non-rational aspects of the holy was extremely influential, inspiring Mircea Eliade’s famous study of the “sacred” in relation to the “profane,” where the former, which is the translation in Eliade’s work given for Otto’s “Heilige” (Holy), “always manifests itself as a reality of a wholly different order from ‘natural’ realities.”35 Eliade explores comparatively various hierophanies of the sacred within the profane—expressive modalities across diverse historical traditions—including the mystical as one such aspect of religious experience.36 Otto also thinks that some numinous (sacred) experiences are mystical. Essential characteristics of mysticism are this creature-consciousness or “self-depreciation” in its most extreme form, the “over-stressing” “of the non-rational or supra-rational elements in religion,” and the identification “of the personal self with the transcendent Reality”—which seems quite a radical shift of perspective from that of numinous experience. Otto rarely uses the term “mysticism” in The Idea of the Holy, rather referring to stages or levels of numinous experience, and seems to suggest that such religious experience ideally culminates in mystical elements.

In Mysticism East and West (1932), Otto distinguishes types of mysticism in a comparative study of Śaṅkara and Eckhart, contrasting two general categories which interpenetrate and are intermingled in mystical descriptions: (1) an introvertive “way of introspection,” where the mystic finds Reality through an intuitive self-knowledge, and (2) a “way of unifying vision,” where the mystic either: (i) comes to see aspects of the created world transfigured within a vision of its unitive essence; or (ii) focuses solely on the One in a unitive awareness, as a “peculiar correlate” or source rather than a “predicate of the many”; or, further, (iii) identifies with the One as radically transcending everything, including this common essence of things. These two general types of mysticism are contrasted: (i) with the visionary revelations of the “illuminist,” which involve sensual features and supernatural powers; (ii) with “emotional experimentalism,” where heightened feeling-states dominate the unitive context; and (iii) with “nature mysticism,” where the unitive consciousness remains focused on phenomenal reality, rather than underlying spiritual contexts.37

So Otto proposes a wide diversity of mystical experience and suggests a hierarchy of mysticism that cuts across religious lines and includes aspects of numinous experience. Ninian Smart, however, accentuates the differences between numinous and mystical experiences, in proposing distinctive types of religious experience. For Smart, mysticism involves a non-dualistic experience of content-less “consciousness-purity” that is expressed in a negative, non-personal, ontological language, which includes a dialectical paradox that can also act as a kind of philosophical ascesis in stimulating the experience, along with other specified methods.38 In striking contrast, numinous experiences involve positive sensual feeling-content in an encounter with a personal Being, where the methods remain unstructured. Smart proposes that these mystical and numinous experiential types correspond with distinctive features of theological discourse and practice respectively: idealistic or realistic worldviews; negative and non-personal or positive and personal language; intuitive illumination or positive feeling-states; and ascetic or moral praxis and faith.

Evaluating Smart’s thesis is difficult because of the intermingling of these two logical strands of religion (experience, discourse, practice) within traditions, as well as Smart’s postulation of a third minor strand, the incarnational, which is not as clearly distinctive as the numinous and the mystical. Moreover, he suggests a dependence of religious doctrine upon mystical/numinous experience that has been criticized in contemporary studies of mysticism, where the emphasis in scholarship has been on the overdetermining influence of the socio-religious context of the mystic on the experience. Decontextualist scholars of mysticism have argued against the popular mainstream, that some mysticisms seem “to result from some sort of innate human capacity,” where the pure-consciousness of the experience is free from all socio-religious contexts, including all thought, perception, and sensation.39 Smart suggests that the pure-consciousness and numinous experiences themselves actually influence the development of religious discourse and practice in definite contrasting directions.

This question of whether numinous experience should be considered to be non-mystical in nature becomes particularly potent when one prioritizes mystical experience above other kinds of religious experiences and other religious phenomena. Grace Jantzen argues “that answers to questions of what mysticism is and of who counts as a mystic, though they will not be constant, will always reveal interconnected struggles of power and authority.”40 She is especially concerned with the way in which definitions of Christian mysticism tended historically to discredit the authority of women visionaries or contributed to the violent persecution of women’s religious experiences that deviated from masculine norms. Definitions of mysticism can also limit a person’s openness to possibly authentic experiential possibilities. Moreover, as illustrated above, definitions of mysticism also affect the nature of scholarship in the field. They determine the kinds of questions one can ask about it and the subject matter associated with it. Overly narrow definitions can adversely limit the direction and depth of research and debate.

Smart’s distinctions between numinous and mystical experience highlight a major issue that develops in the comparative study of mysticism: What is the relationship of mystical experience to other religious experiences? Are there different kinds of mystical experiences? How do types of mystical experiences differ? Can they be related or interconnected theologically or psychologically? Are some mystical experiences better than others? Is there a hierarchy of mystical experiences? Typologies of mysticism have tended to develop along theistic or monistic lines that parallel the theological traditions of the mystics. So, for example, mystics and theorists from Advaita Vedantic and some Buddhist traditions perceive mystical experiences that are characterized in personal, moral, and dynamic terms to be of limited value or even illusionary, in contrast to liberating non-dual experiences that are described in non-personal, amoral, and static terms. Swami Nikhilananda reflects the Advaitic tradition, which classifies theistic mysticism and numinous experience as inferior—as conditioned by lower level reality or nescience—while Ninian Smart, W. T. Stace, and Agehananda Bharati propose non-dual monistic hierarchies of mysticism which regard theistic mysticism as either numinous experience (and not mystical) or interpretive overlay of non-dual, introvertive mystical experience. On the other hand, mystics and theorists from Hindu Bhakti, Christian, and Islamic Sufi traditions tend largely to favor theistic over non-dual forms of mysticism. For example, R. C. Zaehner proposes a hierarchy of nature, monistic and theistic mysticism, where only the latter has religious import and significance, while William Wainwright’s analysis confirms Zaehner’s distinctions, and proposes at least four different types of extrovertive or nature mysticism and two of introvertive mysticism. Louis Dupré distinguishes natural mysticism from religious mysticism, maintaining a tripartite division of the latter in terms of monist, henological (Neoplatonic negative theology), and unitive forms (love mysticism). Still other theorists propose a more integrative typology. Michael Stoeber observes an intimate relationship between non-dual and theistic experiences in some mysticism across various religions, where a personal and creatively dynamic mystical ideal is only realized through a radically static immersion in or oneness with Reality, while Leonard Angel argues that experiences of isolated and introvertive contemplative absorption shift naturally in some mystical traditions to experiences that tend to express an active and compassionate extrovertive serenity.41

The Essentialist and Contextualist Debate

Despite claims by some scholars of diverse kinds of mystical experiences and the question of the relationship of mysticism to other kinds of religious experiences, a popular position for much of the 20th century was that there are significant common features of mysticism across diverse religions and cultures, be they the same type or types: (i) of experiences; (ii) of consciousness and its transformation; (iii) of core doctrines; or (iv) of ontological Reality. These “essentialist” views—also sometimes associated with “perennialist” perspectives of mysticism—have been advocated with different nuances and contexts by some popular theorists, including Evelyn Underhill, René Guénon, Aldous Huxley, Frithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Joseph Campbell, Huston Smith, W. T. Stace, Agehananda Bharati, and Robert Forman.

Huxley writes of a “perennial philosophy” that has its source in an “intuition of the oneness that is ground and principle of all multiplicity.” His popular anthology illustrates many parallels of doctrine, experiential phenomenology, epistemology, psychology, personal transformation, symbols, and practice, across a wide variety of mystical traditions and historical periods.42 Stace and Bharati espouse views that represent common epistemological claims related to non-dual, monistic mysticism, where the “central characteristic in which all fully developed mystical experiences agree” is, in Stace’s words, “the apprehension of an ultimate nonsensuous unity of all things, a oneness or a One to which neither the senses nor the reason can penetrate.” Bharati, an Advaitic philosopher, refers to it as the mystical “intuition of numerical oneness with the cosmic absolute, with the universal matrix, or with any essence stipulated by the various theological and speculative systems of the world.”43 Both philosophers make a distinction between experience and interpretation, which allows them to explain the diversity of religious and mystical traditions while claiming a common experiential core. Similarly, Ninian Smart suggests that experience is “ramified,” to greater or lesser degrees, by the concepts, beliefs, and values that the mystic brings to the experience (“auto-interpretations”) or by that of commentators with different points of view (“hetero-interpretation”).44 So, it makes sense to speak about experiences of consciousness-purity separate from interpretive accounts that can sometimes be doctrinally very specific, even if it is the case that experience and interpretation are always in practice intertwined to various degrees.

René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon are primary sources of the esoteric Traditionalist school, also named Sophia Perennis (perennial wisdom), which highlights a conception of mysticism that corresponds roughly with the views of Stace and Bharati, in contrasting it with other kinds of religious experiences. A prolific writer and avid correspondent, it is hard to gauge the extent of Guénon’s indirect influence on modern essentialist perspectives. He has been criticized for employing a biased and uncritical hermeneutical method, for inadequate scholarly documentation, and for catering to the public fascination for the supernatural, among other concerns.45 A very well read former occultist, Guénon became an ardent critic of the Theosophical Society, Spiritualism, and other esoteric groups he came to consider to be inauthentic. Although Taoism, Advaita Vedanta, and Islamic esotericism are the major formative areas of study for him, he creatively analyzes the symbolism of many religious traditions in developing a theory of religion that distinguishes a creative and manifest Being from its source in the highest super-ontological principle—infinite, inconceivable, and unknowable Non-Being. He develops and illustrates a metaphysics which professes a “primordial Tradition” that precedes and grounds all authentic religion.

Schuon, who is Guénon’s “principle representative,” speaks of the transcendent unity of religions in terms of an “universal esoterism” that underlies and sustains diverse experience, practice, and beliefs of public, formalized, and relative religion—what he and Guénon call “exoteric” religion. All authentic exoteric religions find their spiritual energy and ideal culmination in the direct unitive gnosis of their “esoteric nucleus.”46 Given their original source in the primordial Tradition, various symbolic aspects of religions represent or reflect in different ways this divine Absolute, and are able to inspire and invoke a fundamental connection to this Spirit for those who are able to uncover such hidden meaning. Given the nature of primordial Reality as source of authentic religious traditions, the unitive ideal is possible only by a supernatural grace given to the person. Guénon and Schuon stress the necessity of authentic religious initiation and the ongoing support of an orthodox religion that teaches an effective contemplative praxis, in highlighting sociocultural and individual diversity.

John Hick develops a popular framework of religious pluralism that has some interesting parallels with the Traditionalist school. For him, as for Guénon and Schuon, the Real in itself is a transcendent Infinite Spirit to which human beings have a hidden affinity. Also, he distinguishes between mediated experiences, practices, and beliefs of “second hand religion” and mystical “first hand experience of the Transcendent,” which can take various forms, depending on the socio-religious context of the mystic.47 Hick refers to the transcendent source with a religiously neutral signification, the “Real,” which he insists can never be known in itself, analogous to the noumenal reality in Kant’s system. This is where his view differs from most perennialists. For Hick, the Real is only known as phenomenal Being, in terms either of two major categories of religious experience: personae (God; creative, loving, good) or impersonae (Absolute; static, unity, amoral), depending upon the conceptual framework that structures the mystical experience. The mystic receives “information” from the Real that is transformed into religious experience according to her or his socio-religious categories of experience.48 Echoing some of the views of Henri Bergson and Aldous Huxley, Hick also suggests that such an epistemological dynamic acts as a filter that transforms the Real into intelligible, experiential forms, ensures that a person is not simply overwhelmed or coerced in mystical experience, and is able to explain the wide diversity of mystical descriptions within a framework of religious pluralism. Ironically, despite his essentialist leanings from an ontological and theological standpoint, Hick thus provides a lucid theoretical articulation of the “contextualist” theory of mysticism.

However, contextualism seems to have developed largely in critical response to those essentialist perspectives that distinguish sharply between a common unmediated mystical experience and diverse post-experiential interpretation. Steven Katz argues influentially that all mystical experiences between traditions are different, given the fact that they are “‘over-determined’ by . . . concepts, images, symbols, and values which shape as well as colour the experience [the mystic] eventually and actually has.”49 Katz notes that even apparently identical negative, apophatic theology or descriptors between mystical traditions—which Michael Sells suggests can lead a reader of mystical texts to a “meaning event” that “effects a semantic union that recreates or imitates the mystical union”50—contain no positive content by which one could establish or confirm commonality between mystical traditions. Don Cupitt argues that the mystic realizes the ultimately contingent and relative nature of reality, as the “I” dissolves in mystical praxis and “everything slowly subsides and flattens out into a depthless continuum of flowing meanings,” where there “is no pure datum, no primary substance, no ‘absolute,’ nothing that is always ontologically prior”. Robert Gimello claims that contextualists collapse the essentialists’ distinction between interpretation and experience: “what is perhaps mislabeled ‘interpretation’ is actually ingredient and constitutive of mystical experience.” Structures of experience are caused by “concepts, beliefs, values, and expectations already operative in the mystics’s minds,” through a reconditioning rather than deconditioning of consciousness, where epistemological frameworks give mystical experiences their character.51 Jess Byron Hollenback insists: “it is impossible to isolate the content of a mystical experience from its religious and cultural context”; Michel De Certeau claims “there exists no single point of observation from which it would be possible to contemplate mysticism independently of some sociocultural or religious tradition”; and Don Cupitt writes: “Language goes all the way down; there is no meaningfulness and no cognition prior to language.”52

Daniel Merkur defines mystical experiences from a depth psychological, contextualist, perspective, as “a series of discrete modes of experiencing the self that function simultaneously to impose the unity of the self on whatever the self is bound up with”. Hopes, beliefs, imagination, and fantasy enter into these powerfully affective modes of unitive experience, as they are contextualized by the socio-cultural factors of the mystic. Merkur proposes fourteen unitive modes of experience as a representative selection, such as loving, vital, self-transcendent, solitary, etc, though presumably these might overlap. Hollenback speaks of “context-dependent elements”—such as myths, philosophies, doctrines, and beliefs—that act directly to form the mystical experience in a specific way, and he notes various apparent implications and benefits of the contextualist thesis: pre-experiential context always enters into the mystic event, so there is no possibility of a pure state experience without structures or content; the historical, cultural aspects of mysticism are regarded just as essential as any “object” or non-subjective reality of experience; the significant diversity and even apparent incompatibility of doctrine and practice between mystical traditions is better explained than in essentialist contexts; and the contextualist thesis reflects the general paradigm shift that occurred around the 1970s in other academic disciplines, which stressed the dynamic roles of social culture and language upon individual perception and experience.53 Hollenback observes that “the contextualist paradigm appears to have scored a resounding triumph over its essentialist predecessor” and Matthew Bagger pronounces essentialism a “largely abandoned position.”54 While this seems true of the traditional essentialist claim that all mystical experience is solely interpretive overlay of a prior experience of consciousness purity, some forms of essentialism, as we have seen in the case of the theories of Jones and Hick, seem to be quite compatible with contextualist perspectives.

Moreover, some critics raise serious issues associated with extreme forms of contextualism, claiming that it reduces experience to doctrine by entailing a kind of contextual determinism, does not effectively explore the relation between language and experience, cannot adequately explain the phenomena of mystic heresy or significant mystic innovation, and cannot plausibly account for why some mystics claim to have both contextual and non-contextual types of mystical experience.55 Indeed, if the contextualist in fact does not even “address the question as to whether some exterior reality exists,” as Matthew Bagger claims, then she or he should be open in principle at least to the possibility of a kind of ontological essentialism related to the “exterior reality,” even if it is always only experienced contextually.56 Donald Evans notes the dogmatism inherent in extreme contextualist positions, what Randall Studstill refers to as their “a priori, epistemological thesis,” in highlighting the fact that many mystics do describe a process of radical deconditioning of senses and cognition, in an experience where they insist awareness becomes a kind of “transparency-as-the-Transcendent,” despite whatever methodological constraints theoreticians might attempt to place on the dynamic.57 These kinds of claims carry more weight when they come from thoughtful and well-respected mystics who also profess to have had other kinds of contextually bound mystical experiences.

Robert Forman is one of the more well known critics of contextualism, in developing what has been called a “perennial psychology,” which contrasts with a core introvertive “pure consciousness event”—wholly without cognitive, affective, and sensory content—from other kinds of dualistic mystical experiences. He proposes an essentialism of psychological structure. Although he does suggest there are other kinds of mystical experiences, Forman claims that people possess an innate capacity to tap “into a fundamental human psychophysiological structure,” uncreated by culture, which brings an awareness of their own consciousness, rather than their normal consciousness of things. Contrasted against other kinds of knowledge, it is characterized as “knowledge-by-identity” which cannot be known linguistically nor “grounded on an ostensive definition,” and is transient, immediate, non-linguistic, non-conceptual, and non-intentional.58 Forman also observes among some mystical accounts what he calls a long term or even permanent “dualistic mystical state,” where an unchanging and silent self-awareness accompanies but remains detached from normal processes and experiences of intentional consciousness.59

As such, Forman argues that the pure consciousness event is open to a wide variety of post-experiential interpretive contexts, a view that seems to parallel closely Ninian Smart’s sense of the interpretive-ramifications of experiences of consciousness purity. On this view, meaning is ascribed solely from the mystic’s sociocultural contexts, never from the phenomenology of the pure consciousness event itself. Roman Catholic philosophers Joseph Maréchal, Jacques Maritain, and Louis Dupré reflect similarly about the nature of the knowledge involved traditionally in Christian unio mystica, where, following upon a radical emptying of “the self of its own content,” the “mind functions . . . in a different mode of being-with reality, rather than reflecting upon it.” Like Forman’s sense of the dynamic, the mystic comes to know her or his own substance in an intellectual intuition “born of identity.” For Dupré, this is identity with one’s ontological source, which means participation and sharing in its nature as “life-giving Love,” which is quite a different account of the experienced Reality than Forman would give, in locating at least part of its meaning in the experience itself.60

Forman’s view also seems to parallel in important respects the interpretive development by James Price of Bernard Lonergan’s brief reflections on mysticism. Lonergan influentially analyzes the operations of consciousness in terms of four processes: attentive sensory awareness; intelligent grasping and understanding; rational assessment and judgment; and responsible decision and action. Like Forman’s account, mystical experience for Lonergan and Price does not involve any of these activities of consciousness, even if it is subsequently integrated within the categories of human intentionality. Lonergan speaks of a “mediated return to immediacy . . . in the prayerful mystic’s cloud of unknowing.” It is a passive and vital surrender of all processes of consciousness—a radical self-emptying and opening to a non-intentional unity that is thought to underlie and support the various dynamic processes of intentional consciousness. However, again, Price and Lonergan describe this pure consciousness event as an awareness of one’s primary, vital unity with God—what Lonergan describes as “a silent and all-absorbing self-surrender in response to God’s gift of his love,” which is not the kind of account that Forman would give for an empty and content-less pure consciousness event.61

The parallels and differences between Forman’s perspective and that of Roman Catholic philosophers Lonergan and Dupré highlight interesting questions: even if the view of the pure consciousness event gives effective voice to common processes of introvertive mysticism that are essential in diverse religious traditions, one wonders if it aptly reflects the phenomenology of all introvertive mysticism or even of all experiences of consciousness purity, given various descriptions of them. Moreover, how does the pure consciousness event relate to other forms of mysticism? How does one account for the powerfully affective and meaningfulness-components that seem to be located in many mystical experiences? Is it possible that actual spiritual realities might inform this mystical dynamic in ways that contribute to the development of novel spiritual insights or even religious heresies within the context of more moderate kinds of “experiential constructivism”?62

Randall Studstill articulates an essentialist theory that also maintains a moderate contextualism while focusing on common transformative processes of consciousness between diverse traditions. A significant critical elaboration and refinement of Hick’s religious pluralism, he develops this “mystical pluralism” by adapting a psychological model based on systems theory. Studstill explores through comparative systems analysis the functional organization of specific constituents of consciousness in Dzogchen and German mysticism as these are similarly affected and transformed by diverse mystical doctrines and practices. He uncovers common processes of radical self-surrender, letting-go, and the deconstruction of dualistic thinking and perception, despite the fact that the doctrines and practices supporting and influencing the transformative movement can be heterogeneous.63 He thus joins some other current scholars of mysticism—some of them with essentialist leanings—in advocating for more moderate forms of contextualism that they claim reflect more effectively the dynamics of mystical phenomena.

Drawing upon current enactive paradigms of cognition, transpersonal philosopher Jorge Ferrer hopes to move beyond the contextualist-essentialist debate, in proposing that mysticism involves a spiritual knowing that is constituted by the “participatory enaction” of the various features of the event—including individual dispositions and intentions, the dynamics of human cognition, archetypal and subtle energies, socio-cultural-historical context, and the creative power of an undetermined and radically open mysterious spiritual energy or generative source. The view denies the psychological essentialism of some transpersonal theories in postulating an undetermined ultimate mystery that only becomes enacted through cocreative participation of various elements. Also, the view is contrasted with essentialist and representational paradigms of cognition, where knowledge is understood as a mental image of an independent spiritual object, as well as from extreme contextualist perspectives, which assume there to be no extra-linguistic realities in mystical experience. In this view of participatory enaction, the embodied consciousness of mystical experience is cocreated by the different aspects of the participatory event, which means that spiritual knowledge is inherently transformative, both in the sense that a mystic must experience specific kinds of transformation in order to have certain experiences and that, like all the elements of such participatory events, she or he is always to some degree transformed by their creative interaction.64

Because Ferrer rejects representational paradigms of cognition, his view also means that there can be no “pre-given spiritual ultimate referent.” It is not just the spiritual knowing or experience of the creative source that is cocreated in the participatory event, but even the ultimate mystery itself is cocreated by the various factors in the event—“the mystery cocreatively unfolds in multiple ontological directions.” Ferrer thus attempts to skirt contentious issues surrounding the question of hierarchies of mystical experience by ascribing a wholly amorphous context to ultimate mystery. But if the ultimate mystery becomes cocreated (and thereby conceptually specified) only by the various elements of the participatory event, can it make intelligible sense even to speak of an undetermined generative source that precedes such creation, without postulating something like a divine noumenon in Hick’s sense of the dynamic or a super ontological principle in Guénon’s sense of divine Absolute? How can one even conceive of a dynamic and undetermined mystery participating in an enactive event, if no “pregiven ultimate reality exists”?65 Moreover, what specifically does the creative source contribute to the dynamics of mystical experience, as it becomes enacted within that context? Can it manifest anything whatsoever? Although Ferrer helpfully analyzes various possible transformative dynamics in the participatory enaction of spiritual knowledge, these questions complicate his innovative developments.

Drugs, Morality, Neuroscience, and Evidential Force

Current essentialist scholars of mysticism generally are quite aware of and interested in the socio-moral context of the mystic. However, up to the late 20th century much scholarship in the area tended to downplay the cultural-historical features of mysticism, in emphasizing the psychological dynamics and an individual, disembodied, and radically transcendent ideal. This brought into question the relationship of morality to mystical experience and raised concerns about the status of entheogens—the use of psychoactive drugs in sacramental religious contexts. William James famously claims that the “sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature”66; and it is interesting that mystical and spiritual experiences are key features of the twelve-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although alcohol as a stimulant of mystical experience seems severely limited by its negative side effects, it does appear that some psychotropic or hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, mescaline, psilocybin (a psychedelic compound produced by mushrooms) and ayahuasca (which contains dimethyltryptamine) can lead to transcendence of the ego, which is sometimes associated with certain kinds of mystical experience.

In 1925 James Leuba explored the dynamics of mystical ecstasy in relation to psychedelic substances, in developing a reductionist account of mysticism, and the debate became more prominent in the 1950s with the popular account of Aldous Huxley’s mescaline experiences in The Doors of Perception (1954), which he claims were similar to descriptions given of genuine mystical experiences. R. C. Zaehner responded critically to Huxley in Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (1957), claiming his own encounters with mescaline proved to be trivial and arguing that certain theistic mysticisms, unlike nature and monistic mysticisms, are beyond the facilitation of natural stimulants of any sort. Still, it is important to note that even Zaehner in his critique acknowledges the possible significance of psychotropic drugs for certain kinds of mysticism, while other scholars are more inclined to agree with Huxley’s positive appraisal of them, as potentially a “gratuitous grace.”67 Further support comes from Walter Pahnke’s innovative double-blind controlled experiment at Harvard University in 1963 of thirty subjects, half of whom ingested psilocybin within a spiritual setting. The study evaluates the accounts of participants in light of various common categories of mystical experience. It emphasizes the possible significance of environmental context, psychological set, and intention, in suggesting that psychedelics might function as a necessary but not sufficient condition for mystical experience. Pahnke also speaks of such stimulants theologically, as a kind of “gratuitous grace,” when they lead to a powerful mystical context that is regarded as “a gift and not particularly earned or deserved.”68 In 2006, R. R. Griffiths and colleagues provide a more careful and sophisticated double-blind study that strongly supports Pahnke’s research. They conclude that psilocybin occasioned mystic-like experiences that two-thirds of the participants regarded as extremely meaningful and spiritually significant.69

One theory supposes that hallucinogenic substances provide a spontaneous bypassing of normal sensory/cognitive filters in opening the person to a range of significant subconscious materials and perhaps even to trans- or inter-subjective spiritual realities, much in the manner of traditional intentional techniques of mysticism, such as disciplined meditation, yoga postures and movements, visionary and contemplative prayer, and ascetic practices.70 Some scholars have suggested that drugs provide a helpful mystical means beyond traditional practices for some individuals, arguing that much of the criticism of their use derives from a Christian ethnocentric bias. The fact is that peyote—a spineless cactus containing mescaline—is currently a key ceremonial feature of the North American Native Church, associated ritualistically with prayer, dance, song, healing, and visionary contemplation—and dates from at least the 3th century bce among central American natives. Similarly, psilocybin mushrooms have a long sacramental history among Mesoamerican Indians, and currently the ceremonial use of Ayahuasca is prominent among some Brazilian churches, such as the Santo Daime and União de Vegetal. In these traditions, these mind-altering substances are treated with tremendous respect as medicines and sources of religious insight and communal harmony. Critics claim there is a kind of transient artificialness about such religious methods or that they always issue in hallucination or they cite the fact that many users of psychedelics never claim to encounter sacred reality. They note the negative side effects of hallucinogens, such as confusion, extended panic attacks, or paranoia, and worry about the possibility of consequent long-term psychological disorders.

Ethnotheogenic apologists, such as G. William Barnard, Huston Smith, and William A. Richards, do question if a religious institution which centers itself solely upon psychedelic experience could survive, but argue that psychotropic substances are able to induce “mystical states of consciousness” that might “enhance the religious life” if these are contextualized within a genuine faith and discipline that approaches them with spiritual reverence and trust.71 Otherwise, the dangers to self and others become most pronounced. R. C. Zaehner highlights this well in the concerns he raises about the mysticism of Charles Manson, which was colored deeply by Manson’s experiences of LSD and other drugs. This relates directly to issues about the relationship of morality to mysticism. Zaehner illustrates provocatively the way in which a psychotic mass murderer, whose charisma attracted a fervent following, rationalized his actions in reference to mystical experiences that drew upon aspects of various religious traditions, as well as psychedelics.72 This is where James’s question about the possibility of a “diabolical mysticism” enters into the discussion. Jungian and transpersonal psychologists suggest that through the ascesis of mystical practices the normal checks and balances of very powerful primitive impulses and energies become unhinged as a mystic opens herself to aspects of the personal and pre-personal unconscious—to archetypes and survival and situational instincts associated with sexuality, fear, and aggression—which can inflate and overwhelm the ego.73 Current deliverance and exorcist ministries give more traditional readings of the dynamic, suggesting that a mystic can become open to and influenced by evil spirits or energies, independently of the subjective or collective unconscious.74

However, quite apart from the questions of drugs and mysticism and diabolical mysticism, many mystics speak of uniting or identifying with an ultimate Reality that transcends morality. The transformative ideal or condition, then, is also understood to be beyond moral reference, and some mystics claim in their liberated state to have transcended good and evil and normal moral imperatives. While most mystics are ethically oriented and many have become moral exemplars, saints, or even deified within their respective traditions, there have also been a number of renowned mystics of morally dubious character who claim to move in mystic transformation beyond normal social responsibilities and constraints;75 and generally mysticism has been criticized traditionally for its emphasis on social disengagement, renunciation, passive and isolated contemplative life-styles, and antinomian leanings. Is socio-moral concern and action “an intrinsic part of the mystical process itself” or simply “an incidental by-product of mystical development” for most mystics?76 Does mystical consciousness undermine or support moral awareness and behavior? How does mystical experience affect the transformation of a person’s character? Is the status of the Reality that the mystic experiences moral, amoral, or transmoral? How is the social world related to this Reality?

For example, while Arthur Danto and Aghenanda Bharati show how the goal of Advaitic mokṣa contrasts with moral concepts—where there is nothing inherently moral about the experience of mystical unity with an amoral and inactive oneness or unity—Livia Kohn claims that Taoist masters who identify mystically with the formless Source will naturally “radiate the purity of the underlying [transmoral] goodness” of this cosmic oneness, and David Loy speaks of a “transparency of thusness” in liberated Buddhist experience which leads to its expression by bodhisattvas in devoted social concern.77 Perhaps structurally paralleling these narratives somewhat from a Western religious context, William Ernest Hocking claims there is a necessary continuity or completion of mystical experience in “prophetic consciousness” and “historic accomplishment.”78 Such examples underline the importance of the postulated conceptions of the Reality and of the transformative ideals of mystical experience in determining the status of morality in a mystical tradition.

Following upon contemporary interests in narrative ethics, James Horne shows how the morality of the mystic resembles vocational discernment, which involves what Horne calls a “proper-name morality,” where the individual’s ethical orientation is framed within a personal life-goal and transformative ideal, in contrast to social morality. Donald Evans argues along similar lines, claiming that certain key features of contemplative mysticism—individual transformation, the awareness of spiritual realities, and a deep appreciation of the ultimate goodness of the world—are in natural tension with social activist spiritualities oriented toward a historical, communal ideal. However, some religious traditions call individuals to work to correct the imbalances between the two orientations, which can occur in either direction.79 Jewish Kabbalah stresses the significance of the mystic in healing cosmic disorder or fissure via theurgical practices (evocation-rituals) that are “intended to influence the Divinity” both in its relationship to humanity and its own inner operations, including the “quest to promote the Shekinah’s [divine Presence’s] release and reunion within the Godhead.”80 Moreover, most mystical traditions prescribe moral requisites for the mystic path, even in cases where these are seemingly disconnected from the spiritual ideal or from ultimate Reality. The question is how one can rationally evaluate and censure morally the actions of mystics from within the mystic’s own religious worldview, in cases where extremely abominable behavior of mystics disturb and challenge one’s moral sensibilities or intuitions.81

The issue of drugs and mysticism is also related to developments in the area of neuroscience, where researchers explore electro-chemical brain states associated with mystical experience, in proposing evidence of a mystical neurological substrate. For example, transpersonal therapist Stanislav Grof describes a life-changing mystical experience he had in 1956 while under the influence of LSD with a preceptor who was doing electroencephalography (EEG) testing while also attempting to change Grof’s brain waves via external inputs. Although Grof writes that he “found this effort to capture the enormity of my experience with the use of these scientific gismos utterly futile and ridiculous,”82 it does seem clear that extensive research in neuropsychology has established strong evidence that mystical contemplation produces electrochemical states that are not associated with normal consciousness. Studies using neuroimaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and EEG testing have shown that specific regions and pathways of the brain are directly related to mystical experience. For example, popular studies of contemplative practitioners by research collaborators Andrew Newberg/Eugene d’Aquili and Mario Beauregard/Denyse O’Leary claim that certain kinds of meditation can lead to altered state of consciousness that have definite neurological correlates.

Beauregard and O’Leary claim their data shows that mystical/spiritual experiences are certainly other than ordinary emotional states, though they “are mediated by a number of brain regions normally implicated in perception, cognition, emotion, body representation, and self-consciousness.”83 Newberg and d’Aquili also begin to locate neurologically various religious experiences, such as trance states, visions, cosmic consciousness, and near death experiences, focusing especially on a specific aspect of mystical consciousness—the awareness of what they call Absolute Unitary Being (AUB). This altered state of consciousness corresponds to a marked decrease in neural information (“deafferentiation”) in the upper rear of the brain—the posterior superior parietal lobe—which is an “orientation association area” that when functioning normally in relation other parts of the brain secures a person’s physical spatial sense in relation to other things. Newberg and d’Aquili claim that, at the high end of a continuum of increasingly pronounced unitary experiences, the mind perceives in AUB mystical experience “that the self is endless and intimately interwoven with everyone and everything the mind senses.” However, there are various degrees or levels of interruption of normal neurological connections in this specific region, along with related activity in other parts of the brain, that are matched to different altered states of mystical consciousness.84

Within the context of their neuro-scientific research, Newberg and Aquili claim to have established certain core universal elements apart from “particular cultural matrices,” in developing a cogent essentialist neuro-theology.85 Although their research and theories seem too speculative, hypothetical, and underdeveloped to support such far-reaching claims, it seems clear that neuropsychology has begun to confirm differences among kinds of religious experiences, as well as the contrast between mystical experiences and normal emotional experiences, in illustrating common electro-chemical processes of the brain that correspond to these different forms of consciousness and feeling. However, it does not appear that neuropsychology tells for or against some significant related questions: Are mystical experiences simply reflections of neural states of brain-determined consciousness? Or does consciousness provide an avenue for a mystic to encounter spiritual realities quite apart from her or his own subjectivity, which are then reflected in the neurophysiology of the brain and other parts of the body? Does neuroscience provide any support for or against the perceived objectivity or truth of the religious experience—for its validity or evidential value or force?

On this latter question, quite apart from developments in neuropsychology, William Alston argues that it might be rational for a mystic to regard her or his experiences as veridical and providing support for other beliefs on the grounds that they reflect socially established ways of forming and evaluating beliefs (“doxastic practice”) and if they are not shown to be unreliable.86 In related efforts, some analytic philosophers have defended the evidential value of mystical experience on the grounds that it is like sense perception. Just as sense perception is legitimately granted initial evidential sufficiency for various beliefs, they argue, so should mystical experience, given its perceptual character. There is disagreement about the level of significance of such evidence, which will depend on the specific factors of individual cases, and some scholars vigorously oppose this perspective. In response to critics, qualification concerning the differences and similarities between normal sensory and mystical perception has developed and been related to leading epistemological theories—discussions that can become analytically quite technically detailed and dense.87

While Alston evaluates the relative impact of mystical diversity for the merits of doxatic practice in Christian mysticism, Keith Yandell explicitly draws the discussion into comparative context, distinguishing Judaic, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu numinous experiences from what he calls Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu “enlightenment” experiences. He thereby parallels somewhat Ninian Smart’s distinction between numinous and mystical experience, in adapting and extending C. D. Broad’s famous argument for God from mystical experience. Yandell claims that numinous experience might provide some evidential force for associated beliefs. In contrast to enlightenment and nature mystical experiences, it involves subject-object structural distinctions analogous to perception, is testable in principle, and contains checks against self-deception.88 Critics question Yandell’s monotheistic bias and selectively narrow reading of Eastern non-dual spirituality. Perhaps, for example, monastic guidelines, concerns, and cautions in these traditions might provide relevant counter-evidence to some of his criticisms of enlightenment experiences. Yet, clearly, his work and that of other analytic philosophers highlight the contemporary support for William James’s claim in 1909, that “mystical experiences are as direct perception of fact for those who have them as any sensations ever were for us.”89

Feminist Concerns, Embodiment, and the Mystical Erotic

The essentialist/contextualist debate also moved the comparative study of mysticism beyond issues of epistemology, consciousness-states, ontology, morality, and cognitive neuroscience, broadening the field to include other aspects of religious experience. Some studies have brought feminist concerns to bear on the discussion, insofar as women’s mysticism has been overshadowed and even repressed by men and mysticism was seen to preclude legitimate experiential possibilities of a more embodied character. In the shift to contexualist methodologies, feminist theorists attend to the way in which patriarchal structures of experience historically colored or even determined the nature of mysticism.

Drawing on themes in pychoanalysis and postmodern continental philosophy, Grace Jantzen argues that Western cultural structures of classical theism are dominated by a masculinist symbolic that emphasize binary logic and hierarchical oppositions which lead to imaginaries which fixate on death, a matter/spirit dualism, a distrust of the body and sexuality, and conceptions of God as radically transcendent Spirit. In terms of religious experience, these “necrophilic” structures and values bear themselves out in the predominance of a kind of intellectual mysticism that aspires to a disembodied and world-transcending experience of divine Reality associated with an ideal of infused contemplation. This patriarchal construction of mysticism has significant political consequences, insofar as authorities disparaged and even persecuted the more embodied and social-political visionary and immanentist experiences of women, some of whom creatively resisted and pushed back against the male-defined boundaries of mysticism.90 The issues are compounded by instances of misogynist threads in the tradition—the way in which women were regarded as inferior, created from and dependant on man, and intellectually limited and spiritually restricted given their connections with reproduction and the earth, and their associated bodily desires and passions.

Melissa Raphael focuses in similar ways on the question of numinous experience, which she argues is “mediated and constituted by the androcentrism of Otto’s own world-view.” His ideological and symbolic discourse includes radical dichotomies between God/nature and spirit/flesh, within the context of a male anthropomorphic hierarchical projection associated with symbolic ideograms related to feelings such as awe, fear, enchantment, subordination, and power. Raphael contrasts a female sacrality that is grounded in biology and domesticity within an “ecological-immanentist paradigm.” This “gynocentric” spirituality images divine-human relations in terms of “biophilic, erotic experience” which stresses creativity, social communion, and intimacy with nature.91 Raphael thus parallels Jantzen’s espousal of a feminist symbolic of natality, where conceptual patterns are shaped and governed by an imaginary of birth, creativity, and socio-communal embodied love, in contrast to religious experiences that focus on personally isolating and world-transcending, disembodied, ideals.

Both theorists are quite critical of traditional introvertive non-dual and unitive types of mysticism, whereas the contextualist terms of their critique would appear only to bring into question the legitimacy of traditional (patriarchal) hierarchies of mysticism. Rather than grounding her feminism in a critique of patriarchal structures, values, and gender, Dorothee Soelle advocates a more moderate feminist perspective within the framework of an overriding interest in sociopolitical liberation. She is also concerned about the way in which some patriarchal structures and values overly determined or inhibited the social and religious experience of men, as well as women. Indeed, it would appear that historically some women have experienced both numinous and introvertive non-dual types of mystical experience to positive effect, even though male voices dominate traditional accounts. To what degree might the gynocentric aspects of mysticism proposed by Raphael and Jantzen be open to men? Are biological factors that are related to gender inherent to certain kinds of mysticism, apart from sociocultural context? What might research in neuropsychology have to say about these questions? What role, if any, might an “object” of mystical experience play? Can mystics experience aspects of feminine-like or masculine-like Spirit that is distinct or separable from their own subjectivity and sociocultural context?

Beverly Lanzetta begins to respond to some of these questions in proposing a mystic via feminina as a counter category to Pseudo-Dionysius’ traditional apophasis and kataphasis discourse. Drawing from a number of mystical traditions—though emphasizing Christianity—she maps out contemplative paths and processes which illumine and respond to patriarchal oppressions and violations, conform to feminine structures of being, and exemplify feminine images of the Divine and mystical experiences. She claims this feminine mystical process also supports men who have been adversely affected by historical masculine excesses and distortions, and she links contemplative mysticism to prophetic activism and social transformation, which she insists is a common feature of all “mystical feminisms.”92 Dorothee Soelle rather similarly seeks to “democratize” mysticism by speaking against mystic elitism and emphasizing its possible sociopolitical effects, illustrating the way in which some mystics across religious traditions have resisted violence, possessiveness, and oppressive power. Alongside traditional types of apophatic and cataphatic mystical theology, she proposes a mystic via transformativa which seeks “to erase the distinction between a mystical internal and a political external,” in arguing for radical social transformation driven by the insights and passions of mystical experience that becomes common and widespread across traditions.93 Motivated passionately by this socio-pastoral-ecological agenda, her creative survey shows a Judeo-Christian bias and a methodological naiveté that does not dialogue with related scholarship on the nature and morality of mysticism, and which tends to neglect mystical contexts and differences that might be relevant to her development. As in the case of some other recent studies, one gets the sense that the definitions, readings, and prescriptions of mysticism are being somewhat “over-determined” by the contextual preferences of scholars—be they feminist, liberationist, social transformational, ecological, or erotic—rather than simply focusing on the actual context of the mystics in question.

Also following upon this contemporary turn to contextualism, related scholarship in history, philosophy, and depth psychology has focused creatively on the nature and significance of the erotic and other elements of embodiment in the comparative study of mysticism, with special attention to associated physical phenomena and their transformative dynamics. Elliot Wolfson examines the visionary imagination of medieval Kabbalah with special attention to its erotic configurations in comparative discussion with Sufism, Buddhism, Christian, and other mystical parallels, while Moshe Idel proposes a taxonomy of eroticism in Kabbalistic literature that distinguishes among “the theosophical-theurgical, the ecstatic, and magical-talismanic” models.94 June McDaniel explores ecstatic religion in Bengal in an analysis of figures in the Vaiṣṇava and Śākta traditions, as well as reference to Âuls, Bāuls, and Sahājiyas. Typically antinomian and prophetic, these holy men and women tend to violate the structural methods of traditional ritual and theology within the context of wildly ecstatic bhāva (passionate, affective feeling) experiences. These mystical experiences are radical alterations “of perception, emotion or personality which bring the person closer to what he regards as the sacred,” including trances, visions, raptures, and remarkable physical symptoms—spontaneous movements, stretching, expansion, shrinking, discoloring, and other transformations in appearance.95 Such attention to “mystical sensuality,” “somatic mysticism,” or “embodied mysticism” finds its home especially in studies of Buddhist and Hindu tantric traditions, Daoism, Eastern Christian Orthodox spirituality, and North American Native and non-mainstream Christian mystics. Typically they explore a wide variety of themes: deity-visualization and internalization; visionary experiences; the awakening of spiritual senses and energy centers; transformative healing, deification, and empowerment; social and ecological consciousness and transformation; enhanced bodily feelings and associated physical phenomena; introvertive unitive experiences; the gendering of mystical poetics; and sexuality.96

Traditionally most mystical traditions in Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist spirituality have espoused celibate stances, advocating the repression, transmutation, or transcendence of sexual desire, while more embodied streams in Tantra, Taoism, and Judaism have drawn sexual desire more directly into mystical contexts, though in quite diverse ways. Can certain kinds of mysticism be understood as forms of eroticism? Georg Feuerstein explores the history of sexuality as a sacramental act in the world religions in a wide-ranging and general overview, while Jenny Wade provides a fascinating ethnographic study of people who claim to experience mystical or mystic-like altered states in association with sexual activities that were not deliberately geared toward such mystical ends and where the sexual orgasm itself seemed not to be the causal factor.97 Wade highlights mystical features from a variety of religious traditions that she finds evidenced in her research—kuṇḍalinī phenomena, Hindu and Buddhist non-dualism, Kabbalistic imagery, and so on. Perhaps aspects of her study—for example, the experience of “merging with the partner”—parallel or support the more positive, personalist contemporary understandings of relational sexuality in Christianity or Judaism, where lovers seem able to surrender and transcend normal egoic-narcissistic orientations, experiencing a spiritual ecstasy of emotional and physical sexual union that becomes a fully embodied mystical experience—what Donald Evans describes as both “a spiritualized sexuality and a sexualized spirituality” or Kabbalistic writers characterize as participating in God’s inner life.98 Wade’s study is geared more to a popular audience and includes some simplistic interpretations and generalizations and a rather limited critical context that does not sufficiently evaluate the significance of possible contributing factors, such as subjective fantasy, personal distortions, and the roles of previous knowledge and expectation in the dynamic. Still, it points readers in helpful directions and leads to interesting questions about the possible relation of mysticism to sexuality. Can sexuality stimulate mystical experience? What would be the contributing factors in such cases? How has sexuality historically been related to or excluded from mystical experience in different religious traditions? What are the dynamics of the comparative parallels and differences?

In exploring the mysticism of erotic engagement, Jeffrey Kripal analyzes comparatively the way in which some mystical texts reveal how a person is opened “to a more polymorphous erotic existence” beyond that of more traditionally orthodox spirituality, where the “erotic” denotes the dialectic between “human sexuality and the possible ontological ground(s) of mystical experience.”99 The symbolic narrative of spiritual marriage, for instance, has been especially significant in Christian mysticism, where the devotee focuses passionately on images of Jesus in her contemplative meditations. Rough parallels exist in other religious traditions, such as Gaudiya Vaiṣṇavism with respect to devotion to Kṛṣṇa. In such cases it appears that sexual desire is accessed and re-channeled toward divine imagery, sometimes culminating in quite remarkably affective, erotic mystical realizations, such as the famous transverberation experience recounted by St. Teresa of Avila or the lesser known accounts of “orgasmic rapture” given by Sri Lankan priestesses. In these mystical experiences, Gananath Obeyesekere observes, “we must bridge the familiar distinction between Eros and Agape,” in finding them fused in spiritual marriage.100 While women are oriented toward a male divinity in these traditions, Kripal observes a homoerotic structure for male mystics in Christian and certain other religious traditions where the imaginary is almost exclusively theologically centered on male divinity, which leads to a kind of exiling of male heterosexuality from most orthodox Western male mystical traditions of erotic engagement. The potential implications of this insight for other dimensions of religion seem quite significant. How might it relate to instances historically of Christian misogyny, to traditional disparagements of sexuality in general, or to the way in which commentators might downplay the sensual elements in such male accounts? Does it highlight a deficiency of the spirituality of many male oriented theistic religions, insofar as certain kinds of transformative mystical experiences have remained beyond the ken of heterosexual men? How does this dynamic play itself out comparatively, across different mystical traditions?

Transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber refers to Freudian and Jungian theory in explaining how Kuṇḍalinī Yoga releases and experiences repressed vital-erotic energy that originates from the neonatal condition of uninhibited sensual-spiritual unity—the oceanic bliss of primary infantile narcissism in union with her or his Source—what he calls a “type of immature ‘cosmic consciousness.’” Yoga postures, movements, and visual and breath meditations open a person to the experience and integration of this underlying spiritual energy in a transformative movement. In a transpersonal interpretation of Kuṇḍalinī Yoga, Wilber observes, “God consciousness is not sublimated sexuality; sexuality is repressed God consciousness,”101 which highlights the way in which transpersonalists draw upon themes in mystical traditions in mapping processes of consciousness within modern therapeutic contexts. Transpersonal psychology—sometimes called “spiritual psychology”—is interdisciplinary in method, drawing on many humanistic disciplines in its development, especially humanistic and developmental psychology, psychosynthesis, and Jung’s pioneering comparative reflections on mysticism in analytic psychology. It claims that the ego can be transcended in movements into higher states of consciousness that ideally involve personal/spiritual enhancement and integration. Humanistic founder Abraham Maslow also espouses a developmental theory that culminates in higher states of consciousness related to mysticism within a comparative religious context. He develops the concept of “peak experience” to illustrate and analyze a higher consciousness in terms free from theologically specific language. Maslow espouses a naturalistic perennialism which claims that certain kinds of mystical experiences signify the apex of personal development in a self-fulfillment or self-actualization that issues in very positive feelings, attitudes, and insights, such as tranquility, vitality, creative spontaneity, rhapsodic joy, peace, appreciative awareness, gratitude, unity, and integrated non-intentional wholeness.102

Maslow’s work parallels what William Parsons classifies as “transformational school studies” in Parsons’s clarification of different types of psychoanalytic approaches to mysticism. “[C]lassic school studies” include the comparative work of Narasingha Sil and Jeffrey Masson, which tend to read mysticism as “solely regressive, defensive, and pathological,” while “adaptive” and “transformational” theorists perceive mysticism to be possibly healing/therapeutic and self-transcending respectively, despite possible delusions, perversions, and distortions that might enter into the dynamic. Parsons refers to Karen Horney, Erik Erikson, Heinz Kohut, Erich Fromm, Sudhir Kakar, Daniel Merkur, Romain Rolland, W. W. Meisner, Jack Engler, and others, as comparative psychoanalytic theorists who fit in the adaptive and/or transformational categories.103 Such a general therapeutic-transformative framework also structures transpersonalist theory, with major theorists emphasizing different mystical traditions and transformative dynamics in analyzing therapeutic shifts to transegoic planes of consciousness. For example, Wilber draws on mysticism from Buddhism and Advaita Vedānta in espousing an ideal of ego-transcendence within a developmental hierarchy, while Michael Washburn refers largely to Hindu Tantra, Kuṇḍalinī Yoga, Śākta, and Christian mysticism and alchemy, in proposing a spiraling dialectic of ego-regression and transformative spiritual reintegration which focuses on more embodied forms of mysticism.104 Critics question the essentialism inherent to these views—a “psychological perennialism,” which has been further emphasized in Wilber’s more recent postulation of an all-encompassing system of integral spirituality—and they raise concerns about the selective and what they consider an Orientalist treatment of Eastern mystical traditions, as well as the spiritual emphasis, wherein psychology seems to be transforming into a religion. Still, despite such criticisms, some transpersonal theory possesses an insightful, well researched, and therapeutic sophistication that seems to reflect in significant ways traditional developmental perspectives of some mystics, mystical traditions, and other schools of psychotherapy.105

Some recent work by theologians in the area of what has been called “the new comparative theology” also focuses creatively on themes in the comparative study of mysticism. Roman Catholic theologians Francis Clooney and James Fredericks are authoritative proponents of this methodology as it applies to Hindu-Christian and Buddhist-Christian studies respectively, advocating a comparative approach by theologians that concentrates on specific features of other faith traditions while maintaining a self-awareness of one’s own cultural and religious orientation and biases. The method involves engaged and even participatory creative reflection on particular theological practices or beliefs of religious traditions in critical comparison with those of one’s own, followed by subsequent clarification, amplification, and revisioning of aspects of one’s own faith perspective in light of such comparative study.106 Some recent proponents of this approach to comparative theology advocate extreme contextualist standpoints that tend to eschew all essentialist views at the outset and even all theorizing related to meta-perspectives about religions, in contrast to other influential comparativist theologians and philosophers who lean toward stances of religious inclusivism or pluralism in their participatory approaches to the other. For example, William Johnston and Louis Roy approach Buddhist-Christian dialogue from Bernard Lonergan’s epistemological framework, which situates mysticism cross-culturally within common dynamic processes of human intentional consciousness. Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux) proposes methods of radical Indian inculturation in his highly innovative approach to Christian-Hindu dialogue, which includes strong features from Hindu mystical theory and practice that he attempts to integrate and frame within his own sense of Christian contemplative mysticism and mystical theology. Raimon Panikkar also advocates a participatory approach towards the specifics of the comparative other, writing of the human being as the “mystic animal” in postulating a pluralism that perceives mysticism as “the human characteristic par excellence”—an integral pure consciousness experience that is “untouched by the reflective faculties,” open to everyone, and includes a communal sensitivity to the earth, other people, and ultimate Reality.107

General Contemporary Developments

Panikkar’s attempt to integrate humanity, material reality, and ultimate Reality within his mystical sense of an all encompassing “cosmotheandric” intuition reflects the shifts more generally in the comparative study of mysticism toward broader definitions of mysticism and to themes related to more embodied aspects of mystical experience, as these are developing in fields such as eroticism, feminism, ecology, transpersonal psychology, as well as comparative theology. It seems clear that this swing in interest to issues beyond epistemological and ontological concerns is also accompanied by a stronger awareness of traditional Orientialist tendencies, which are further supported by an increase in the number of comparative theorists writing out of non-Christian and non-Western traditions and perspectives. Another significant factor seems to be a marked movement toward what Dorothee Soelle coined the “democratization of mysticism,” as traditional mystic-elitist tendencies or connotations are giving way to a more common experiential-openness within a phenomena that, despite its subversive tendencies, historically was always drawn under the special purview of religious and clerical celibates, especially dominated by men. This egalitarian shift is compounded by significantly increased social contact with the religious Other and greater sympathy and support for inter-religious dialogue, practice, and experience, leading to issues and themes associated with a new kind of mystic hybridity or practical or experiential plurality. One sees this, for example, in questions surrounding the regular practice of Jews and Christians of various kinds of Hindu yoga and Buddhist meditation, and the comparison of Christian and Buddhist contemplative practices,108 as well as in the adaptation and incorporation of Buddhist mindfulness meditation into Western cognitive psycho-therapeutic contexts. The data of the comparative study of mysticism thus seems to be moving in a direction that favors anthropological and sociological ethnographic studies, in contrast to the traditional emphasis on textual sources and on philosophical and psychological methodologies, though perhaps these shifts might lead to a more productive dialogue or even conjunction and critical integration of a variety of sources and methods.109

Primary Sources

Apart from the books and articles listed in the Notes section of this article and in the bibliography under Further Reading, there are some helpful current surveys, series, and anthologies related to primary sources in the comparative study of mysticism that should be mentioned. Bernard McGinn gives a masterly historical exposition of numerous Christian mystics in his five-volume series, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism, which also includes a detailed overview of theories of mysticism, distinguished in terms of the theological, philosophical, and the comparativist and psychological approaches.110 Henri Brémond provides a survey of modern French spirituality in his twelve-volume Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, which, Louis Dupré observes, “remains unsurpassed”; and the Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire reviews much Christian material in seventeen volumes.111 There are a number of book series that explore themes of mysticism from a wide variety of religious traditions and mystical genres, which provide rich resources for current and future comparative work: Paulist, The Classics of Western Spirituality (over 150 volumes); Frommann-Holzboog, Mystik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (fifty-five volumes); Routledge Sufi Series (twenty-eight volumes); Crossroad, World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest (twenty-five volumes); Peeters, Studies in Spirituality Supplement (twenty-four volumes); Brill, Aries book series, Texts and Studies in Western Esotericism (twenty volumes volumes); Routledge Series in Tantric Traditions (four volumes). William Harmless of Creighton University provides on a webpage an extensive “Bibliographies for the Studies of Spirituality and Mysticism” focusing heavily on the history of Christian mysticism but also including reference to other mystical traditions under the categories “Spirituality in the Modern World” and “Spirituality and the World Religions.”112

On the subject of the morality of mysticism, Richard H. Jones explores various issues within a substantial survey of a number of mystical traditions, including Jainism and left-handed (vāmamārga) Tantra, and Jeffrey Kripal and G. William Barnard have edited a significant wide-ranging anthology that arose from annual conferences on mysticism sponsored by the Forge Institute in the 1990s.113 Jacob A. Belzen and Antoon Geels have edited an anthology that focuses on research, challenges, and interpretations in current psychological perspectives of mysticism, while Charles Tart’s Altered States of Consciousness is a pioneering anthology that introduces, classifies, and analyzes types of altered states in terms of scientific research and psychological and philosophical theory.114 Jeffrey Kripal gives an interesting historical survey of various influential figures in the comparative study of mysticism connected to the Esalen Institute of Big Sur, California (est. 1962), especially counter-cultural notables involved in the human potential movement; and, for an extensive bibliography of publications relating to entheogens, including the recent CSP Psilocybin Research at Johns Hopkins, see the website of the Council on Spiritual Practices.115 On the subject of teaching mysticism, William Parsons has edited a lively anthology from a variety of methodological and institutional contexts that covers the major mystical traditions, along with Indigenous, African American, New Age, and Western esoteric traditions; while Steven Katz has edited from a contextualist perspective a lengthy anthology of original mystical sources from the major mystical traditions, which includes brief overviews from scholars on each tradition and extensive bibliographies.116

Further Reading

Almond, Philip. Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine: An Investigation of the Study of Mysticism in World’s Religions. New York: Mouton, 1982.Find this resource:

Bharati, Agehananda. The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism. Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1976.Find this resource:

Dasgupta, Surendranath. Hindu Mysticism. New York: Ungar, 1959 [1927].Find this resource:

De Certeau, Michel. “Mysticism.” Translated by Marsanne Brammer. Diacritics 22.2 (1992 [1968]): 11–25.Find this resource:

Ellwood, Robert S. Mysticism and Religion. New York: Seven Bridges, 1999.Find this resource:

Evans, Donald D. Spirituality and Human Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Forman, Robert K. C., ed. The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology and Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Hick, John. The New Frontier of Religion and Science: Religious Experience, Neuroscience and the Transcendent. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.Find this resource:

Hollenbach, Jess Byron. Mysticism, Experience, Response and Empowerment. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Laenen, J. H. Jewish Mysticism: An Introduction. Translated by David E. Orton. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Lossky, Vladimir. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Cambridge, U.K.: Clarke, 1957.Find this resource:

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Macmillan, 1961 [1902].Find this resource:

Jones, Rufus. Studies in Mystical Religion. London: Macmillan, 1923 [1909].Find this resource:

Katz, Steven T., ed. Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.Find this resource:

Katz, Steven T., ed. Mysticism and Religious Traditions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Scholem, Gershom. On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead: Basic Concepts of the Kabbalah. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. New York: Schocken, 1991 [1962].Find this resource:

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. 35th Anniversary ed. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011 [1975].Find this resource:

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. “The Making of Modern ‘Mysticism.’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71.2 (June 2003): 273–302.Find this resource:

Smart, Ninian. “Interpretation and Mystical Experience.” Religious Studies 1.1 (1965): 75–87.Find this resource:

Stace, W. T. Mysticism and Philosophy. London: Macmillan, 1961.Find this resource:

Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. New York: Harper, 1957.Find this resource:

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: The Preeminent Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. New York: Image Books, 1990 [1911].Find this resource:

Woods, Richard, ed. Understanding Mysticism. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1980.Find this resource:

Zaehner, R. C. Mysticism Sacred and Profane; An Inquiry into Some Varieties of Praeter-natural Experience. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961 [1957].Find this resource:


(1.) Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. and ed. Richard Crouter (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 32.

(2.) Ninian Smart, The World Religions, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), 9–24.

(3.) Louis Dupré, The Other Dimension: A Search for the Meaning of Religious Attitudes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), 485.

(4.) Grace Jantzen, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 318; Louis Bouyer, “Mysticism: An Essay on the History of the Word,” in Understanding Mysticism, ed. Richard Woods (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1980), 47, 50–51, 52–53.

(5.) Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 268.

(6.) For example, see Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); Sally B. King, “Two Epistemological Models for the Interpretation of Mysticism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 56 (1988): 257–293; and G. William Barnard, “Explaining the Unexplainable: Wayne Proudfoot’s Religious Experience,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 60 (1992): 231–256.

(7.) Bouyer, “Mysticism,” 51;Paul L. Gavrilyuk and Sarah Coakely, The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Spirituality (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 7; Jean-Luc Marion, “Introduction: What Do We Mean by ‘Mystic’?,” trans. Gareth Gollrad, in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, eds. Michael Kessler and Christian Sheppard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 3, 2, 5, 4 [1–7].

(8.) Leigh Eric Schmidt, “The Making of Modern ‘Mysticism,’” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71.2 (June 2003): 281–282.

(9.) Michel De Certeau, “Mysticism,” trans. Marsanne Brammer, Diacritics 22.2 (1992 [1968]): 23; [11–25]; Don Cupitt, Mysticism After Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 3.

(10.) Robert Alfred Vaughan, Hours with the Mystics: A Contribution to the History of Religious Opinion, vols. 1–2 (London: John W. Parker and Son West Strand, 1856), vol. 1: 41, vi. Vaughan’s italics.

(11.) Schmidt, “The Making of Modern ‘Mysticism,’” 282–283.

(12.) Joel Myerson, ed., Transcendentalism: A Reader (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

(13.) Bruce F. Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revived: A History of the Theosophical Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).

(14.) Schmidt, “The Making of Modern ‘Mysticism,’” 281. Michel de Certeau. Heterologies: Discourse on the Other, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 82.

(15.) Rufus Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (London: Macmillan, 1923 [1909]), xxi-xxiii, xv. Jones’s italics.

(16.) See, for example, Grace Jantzen, “The Legacy of Evelyn Underhill,” Feminist Theology 4 (1993): 59–71; Steven Katz, “Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed. Steven Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 22–74.

(17.) Jones, Studies, xxxiv.

(18.) Baron Friedrich von Hügel, The Mystical Element of Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Friends, 2d ed. (London: J. M. Dent, 1923 [1908]); W. R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (New York: Living Age, 1956 [1899]); Edward Cuthbert Butler, Western Mysticism: The Teaching of Saints Augustine, Gregory, and Bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1923).

(19.) Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: The Preeminent Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness (New York: Image Books, Doubleday 1990 [1911]), 37, xiv.

(20.) Ibid., 37, 35, 36, 96.

(21.) Evelyn Underhill, Practical Mysticism (Columbus, OH: Ariel, 1942 [1914]), 23.

(22.) Edouard Récécjac, Essai sur les fondements de la Connaissance Mystique (Paris: Felix Alcan 1897). As translated in Underhill, Mysticism, 21.

(23.) Louis Massignon, “Muslim and Christian Mysticism in the Middle Ages,” in Testimonies and Reflections: Essays of Louis Massignon, ed. and trans. Herbert Mason (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), 123.

(24.) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Collier, 1961 [1902]), 301, 326, 319.

(25.) Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979), 3.

(26.) Richard King, “The Power of Definition: A Geneology of the Idea of ‘the Mystical’,” in Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and ‘The Mystic East’ (New York: Routledge, 1999), 7–23.

(27.) James, Varieties, note 28, 320.

(28.) Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, & Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).

(29.) W. T. Stace, ed., The Teachings of the Mystics: Being Selections of the Great Mystics and Mystical Writings of the World (New York: New American Library, 1960), 10–12.

(30.) Herbert Thurston, The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism (Chicago: H. Regnery, 1952); Herbert Thurston, Surprising Mystics (London: Burns and Oates, 1955).

(31.) Jeffrey J. Kripal, Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 9, 41–42.

(32.) Jess Byron Hollenback, Mysticism, Experience, Response and Empowerment (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 22.

(33.) Ninian Smart, “Interpretation and Mystical Experience,” Religious Studies 1.1 (1965): 75–76.

(34.) Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, 2d ed., trans. John W. Harvey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978 [1917]), 5, 8, 26, 27, 21–22, 90, 194.

(35.) Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1959 [1957]), 10.

(36.) Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1958); Mircea Eliade, “Experiences of the Mystic Light,” in The Two and the One, trans. J. M. Cohen (London: Harvill, 1965), 19–77.

(37.) Rudolph Otto, Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature or Mysticism, trans. Bertha L. Bracey and Richard C. Payne (New York: Macmillan, 1972 [1926]), 72, 68; see especially 59–72; 89–95.

(38.) Ninian Smart, Reasons and Faith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958), 132–147; and “The Purification of Consciousness and the Negative Path,” in Mysticism and Religious Traditions, ed. Steven Katz (Oxford: Oxford University Press), esp. 117.

(39.) Robert K. C. Forman, ed., The Innate Capacity: Mysticism, Psychology and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), viii.

(40.) Jantzen, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism, 2.

(41.) Swami Nikhilananda, Self-Knowledge of Sri Sankaracharya (Madras: Chinmaya Publications Trust, 1970); Smart, “Interpretation and Mystical Experience”; Stace, ed., The Teachings of the Mystics;Agehananda Bharati, The Light at the Center: Context and Pretext of Modern Mysticism (Santa Barbara, CA: Ross-Erikson, 1976); R. C. Zaehner, Mysticism Sacred and Profane; An Inquiry into Some Varieties of Praeter-natural Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961 [1957]; William Wainwright, Mysticism: A Study of its Nature, Cognitive Value and Moral Implications (Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1981); Dupré, The Other Dimension; Michael Stoeber, Theo-Monistic Mysticism: A Hindu-Christian Comparison (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994); Leonard Angel, The Silence of the Mystics (Toronto: Morgan House Graphics, 1983).

(42.) Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1945), 5.

(43.) Stace, The Teaching of the Mystics, 14–15; Bharati, The Light at the Center, 25. Their italics.

(44.) Smart, “Interpretation and Mystical Experience,” 80–81.

(45.) Antoine Favre and Jacob Needleman, Modern Esoteric Spirituality, Vol. 21 of World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 335.

(46.) Antoine Favre, Access to Western Esotericism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1905), 102; Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ed., The Essential Frithjof Schuon (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2005), 87, 155–156.

(47.) John Hick, “Mystical Experience as Cognition,” in Understanding Mysticism, ed. Richard Woods (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1980), 423.

(48.) John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2d ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 [1989]), 243, 236–246, 244.

(49.) Steven Katz, “Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,” in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, ed. Steven Katz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), 46.

(50.) Michael A. Sells, Mystical Languages of Unsaying (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 9.

(51.) Cupitt, Mysticism after Modernity, 132, 129, 7; Robert M. Gimello, “Mysticism in its Contexts,” Mysticism and Religious Traditions, ed. Steven Katz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 62; Katz, “Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,” 57.

(52.) Hollenback, Mysticism, 24; De Certeau, “Mysticism,” 23; Cupitt, Mysticism after Modernity, 11.

(53.) Daniel Merkur, Explorations of the Psychoanalytic Mystics (New York: Rodopi, 2010) 19, 21, 18–28; “Unitive Experiences and the State of Trance”, in Mystical Union and Monotheistic Faith: An Ecumenical Dialogue, eds. M. Idel and B. McGinn (New York: Macmillan 1989); Hollenback, Mysticism, 8–12.

(54.) Hollenback, Mysticism, 12; Matthew C. Bagger, “Ecumenicalism and Perennialism Revisited,” Religious Studies 27.3 (1991): 399 [399–411].

(55.) See, for example, Philip C. Almond, Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine: An Investigation of the Study of Mysticism in World Religions (New York: Mouton, 1982), 165–168; Stoeber, Theo-Monistic Mysticism, chs. 1–2; 7–38; and Randall Studstill, The Unity of Mystical Traditions: The Transformation of Consciousness in Tibetan and German Mysticism (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005), ch. 2; 35–86.

(56.) Bagger, “Ecumenicalism and Perennialism Revisited,” 404.

(57.) Studstill, The Transformation of Consciousness, 37; Donald Evans, “Can Philosophers Limit What Mystics Can Do? A Critique of Steven Katz,” Religious Studies 25 (1989), 57 [53–60].

(58.) Robert K. C. Forman, ed., The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy, 8–9; Forman, “Introduction,” The Innate Capacity, 21; 18–24.

(59.) Robert K. C. Forman, Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), 150–151.

(60.) Louis Dupré, “The Christian Experience of Mystical Union,” The Journal of Religion 69.1 (January 1989): 5, 8 [1–13]; Joseph Maréchal, Studies in the Psychology of the Mystics, trans. Algar Thorold (Albany: Magi, 1964 [1927]), 60, 124–135; Jacques Maritain, “The Natural Mystical Experience,” in Redeeming the Time, trans. Harry Lorin Binesse (London: Geoffrey Bles, The Centenary Press, 1943), 238–240.

(61.) Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 77, 273; James Robertson Price III, “Lonergan and the Foundation of a Contemporary Mystical Theology,” in Lonergan Workshop, vol. 5, ed. Fred Lawrence (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), 161–191.

(62.) Stoeber, Theo-Monistic Mysticism, esp. 15–19;Caroline Franks Davis, The Evidential Force of Religious Experience (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989), 165, ch. 6.

(63.) Studstill, The Transformation of Consciousness, 26–33.

(64.) Jorge N. Ferrer, “Spiritual Knowing as Participatory Enaction: An Answer to the Question of Religious Pluralism,” in The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, Religious Studies, eds., Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008), 139, 136, 142, 137–138 [135–169]; Jorge N. Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002).

(65.) Jorge N. Ferrer, “Transpersonal Psychology, Science, and the Supernatural”, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 46.2 (2014), 168; Ferrer, “Spiritual Knowing,” 142. His italics.

(66.) James, Varieties, 304.

(67.) Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (New York: Perennial Classics, 2004 [1954]), 73. James H. Leuba, The Psychology of Religious Mysticism (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972 [1925]), especially 8–36.

(68.) Walter N. Pahnke, “Drugs and Mysticism,” in The Highest States of Consciousness, ed. John White (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1972), 274, [257–277].

(69.) R. R. Griffiths, et al., “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance,” Psychopharmacology (July 2006) 187: 282 [268–283]; Michael Pollan, “The Trip Treatment: Research into Psychedelics, Shut Down for Decades, Is Now Yielding Exciting Results,” The New Yorker (February 9, 2015), 36–47.

(70.) G. William Barnard, “The Potential Relevance of Entheogens,” Zygon, 49.3 (September 2014): 667–673.

(71.) William A. Richards, “Here and Now: Discovering the Sacred with Entheogens,” Zygon 49.3 (September 2014): 662–663 [652–665]; Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000), 30, 31.

(72.) R. C. Zaehner, Our Savage God: The Perverse Use of Eastern Thought (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1974), esp. 51–72.

(73.) Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Human Development, 2d ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 171–202.

(74.) Michael Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty (New York: Doubleday, 2001); Michael Stoeber, “Mysticism in The Brothers Karamazov,” Toronto Journal of Theology 31.2 (Fall 2015), 249–271.

(75.) Georg Feuerstein, Holy Madness: Spirituality, Crazy–wise Teachers, and Enlightenment (Prescott, AZ: Hohm, 2006).

(76.) Richard Woods, Mysterion (Chicago: Thomas More, 1981), 163.

(77.) Arthur C. Danto, Mysticism and Morality: Oriental Thought and Moral Philosophy (New York: Basic Books, 1972); Bharati, The Light at the Center; Livia Kohn, “The Sage in the World, the Perfected without Feelings: Mysticism and Moral Responsibility in Chinese Religion,” in Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism, eds. G. William Barnard and Jeffrey J. Kripal (New York: Seven Bridges, 2002), 289 [288–306]; David R. Loy, “The Lack of Ethics and the Ethics of Lack in Buddhism,” in Crossing Boundaries, 272–273 [265–287].

(78.) William Hocking, The Meaning of God in Human Experience: A Philosophic Study of Religion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1912), 511, 512.

(79.) James Horne, The Moral Mystic (Waterloo, ON: Laurier, 1983), 46–54; James Horne, Mysticism and Vocation (Waterloo, ON: Laurier, 1996); Donald D. Evans, “Spirituality and Social Action,” in Spirituality and Human Nature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 221–230.

(80.) Moshe Idel, Kabbalah: New Perspectives (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), 157; Brian L. Lancaster, “Engaging with the Mind of God: The Participatory Path of Jewish Mysticism,” in The Participatory Turn, eds. Ferrer and Sherman, 181.

(81.) Michael Stoeber, “Amoral Trickster or Mystic-Saint: Spiritual Teachers and the Transmoral Narrative,” in Crossing Boundaries, eds. G. William Barnard and Jeffrey J. Kripal, 382.

(82.) Stanislav Grof, “The Great Awakening: Psychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality in LSD Psychotherapy,” in Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, eds. Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 123.

(83.) Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 275, 272.

(84.) Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief (New York: Ballantine, 2001), 4–6; Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili, The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1999), 192, 41, 102–103.

(85.) Newberg and d’Aquili, The Mystical Mind, 5, 12; Andrew B. Newberg, Principles of Neurotheology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010).

(86.) William P. Alston, Perceiving God (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 6.

(87.) Jerome Gillman, Mystical Experience of God: A Philosophical Inquiry (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001), 22–38.

(88.) Keith E. Yandell, The Epistemology of Religious Experience (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 21–32.

(89.) James, Varieties, 332.

(90.) Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards a Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), 128–137; Grace M. Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 328.

(91.) Melissa Raphael, “Feminism, Constructivism and Numinous Experience,” Religious Studies 30.4 (December 1994), 513, 518, 515, 525 [511–526].

(92.) Beverly Lanzetta, Radical Wisdom: A Feminist Mystical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 13, 62.

(93.) Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, trans., Barbara Rumscheidt and Martin Rumscheidt (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 14, 3, 93.

(94.) Elliot Wolfson, Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005); Moshe Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 13.

(95.) June McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 2.

(96.) See, for example, Thomas Cattoi and June McDaniel, eds., Perceiving the Divine through the Human Senses: Mystical Sensuality (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 10, 11; Paul Steinmetz, Pipe, Bible, and Peyote Among the Oglala Lakota: A Study in Religious Identity, rev. ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990 [1980]; Gavrilyuk and Coakely, eds., The Spiritual Senses: Perceiving God in Western Spirituality; Janet K. Ruffing, ed., Mysticism and Social Transformation (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001); Gananath Obeyesekere, Awakened Ones: Phenomenology of Visionary Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Mary E. Giles, ed., The Feminist Mystic and Other Essays on Women and Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1982); Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff, Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Bina Gupta, ed., Sexual Archetypes, East and West (New York: Paragon House, 1987); Wouter J Hanegraaff and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds., Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism (Boston: Brill, 2008).

(97.) Georg Feuerstein, Sacred Sexuality: The Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2003 [1992]; Jenny Wade, Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil (New York: Paraview Pocket Books, 2004).

(98.) Wade, Transcendent Sex, 272, 180–184; Evans, “Sexuality, Spirituality, and the Art of Therapy,” in Spirituality and Human Nature, 87 (ch. 3); Moshe Idel, Kabbalah and Eros (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).

(99.) Jeffrey J. Kripal, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 17, 21.

(100.) Obeyesekere, Awakened Ones, 211–212.

(101.) Ken Wilber, “Are the Chakras Real?,” in Kundalini: Evolution and Enlightenment, rev. ed., ed. John White (New York: Paragon House, 1990), 123, 130.

(102.) Abraham Maslow, Religion, Values and Peak Experiences (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964); Abraham Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1971).

(103.) William B. Parsons, The Enigma of the Oceanic Feeling: Revisioning the Psychoanalytic Theory of Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 110, 109–139.

(104.) Ken Wilber, The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (Wheaton, IL: Quest, 1980); Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground.

(105.) Seymour Boorstein, ed. Transpersonal Psychotherapy, 2d ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).

(106.) Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2010), esp. 3–19; James Fredericks, Buddhists and Christians: Through Comparative Theology to Solidarity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), esp. 26–29; Reid B. Locklin and Hugh Nicholson, “The Return of Comparative Theology,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 78.2 (2010): 477–514.

(107.) Louis Roy, Mystical Consciousness: Western Perspectives and Dialogue with Japanese Thinkers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003); William Johnston, The Mirror Mind: Spirituality and Transformation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981); Swami Abhishiktananda (Henri Le Saux), Saccidānanda: A Christian Approach to Advaitic Experience, rev. ed. (Delhi: ISPCK, 1984 [1974]); Raimon Panikkar, Mysticism and Spirituality, Opera Omnia Series, vol. 1, pt. 1, ed. Milena Carrara Pavan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2014), xiv, xvii, xxiv. Panikkar’s italics.

(108.) See, for example, Christians Practicing Yoga: Yoga from a Christian Perspective, a North American network that supports Christians in the practice of yoga, offering extensive resources of methods, sources, workshops, and conferences; Monastic Interreligious Dialogue: sponsored by North American Benedictine and Cistercian Monasteries of Men and Women; and Michael Stoeber, “Exploring Processes and Dynamics of Mystical Contemplative Meditation: Some Christian-Buddhist Parallels in Relation to Transpersonal Theory,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 7.2 (Summer 2015).

(109.) This article benefited from comments by Ted Ulrich, Reid Locklin, Jeff Kripal, and John Dadosky, who responded helpfully to a later draft, while Bill Barnard provided especially insightful research-direction at the beginning of the process. Also, Christina Labriola gave helpful research assistance through generous financial support from Regis College, University of Toronto.

(110.) Bernard McGinn, “Theoretical Foundations: The Modern Study of Mysticism,” in The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 263–343; Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God, 5 vols. (New York: Crossroad, 1991–2005).

(111.) Henri Brémond Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France, depuis la fin des guerres de religion jusqu’à nos jours, 2d ed., ed. René Taveneaux, 12 vols. (Paris: A. Colin, 1967–1968); Louis Dupré, “Mysticism,” Encyclopedia of Religion, 2d ed., ed. Lindsay Jones (Detroit: Macmillan, 2005), 6355; Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, ed. Marcel Viller et al., 17 vols. (Paris: Beauchesne, 1932–1995).

(112.) Harmless, William. Bibliographies for Studies of Spirituality and Mysticism.

(113.) Richard H. Jones, Mysticism and Morality: A New Look at Old Questions (Oxford: Lexington, 2004); G. William Barnard and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds., Crossing Boundaries: Essays on the Ethical Status of Mysticism (New York: Seven Bridges, 2002).

(114.) Jacob A Belzen and Antoon Geels, eds., Mysticism: A Variety of Psychological Perspectives, in The International Series in the Psychology of Religion, ed. J. A. Belzen (New York: Editions Rodopi B.V., 2003); Charles T. Tart, ed., Altered States of Consciousness (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972).

(115.) Jeffrey J. Kripal, Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007); “Entheogen Project,” Council on Spiritual Practices.

(116.) William B. Parsons, ed., Teaching Mysticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Steven T. Katz, ed., Comparative Mysticism: An Anthology of Original Sources (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).