A type of religious attitude (appearing in many guises and within many religions from antiquity onwards) emphasizing various practices – ascetic, contemplative, or other – for obtaining knowledge of and unification with God or spiritual reality by means not open to reason and not relying on dogma.
Mystics claim to achieve this knowledge or unification by experiences which have a favorable affective quality and cannot be put into words (they are ‘ineffable’); though it is claimed that mystics of widely differing traditions readily understand each other’s writings.
H L Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1935); contains discussion of historical growth of mysticism, though in the service of Bergson’s own philosophy
“Mysticism” is derived from the Greek μυω, meaning “I conceal”,[web 2] and its derivative μυστικός, mystikos, meaning ‘an initiate’. The verb μυώ has received a quite different meaning in the Greek language, where it is still in use. The primary meanings it has are “induct” and “initiate”. Secondary meanings include “introduce”, “make someone aware of something”, “train”, “familiarize”, “give first experience of something”.[web 3]
The related form of the verb μυέω (mueó or myéō) appears in the New Testament. As explained in Strong’s Concordance, it properly means shutting the eyes and mouth to experience mystery. Its figurative meaning is to be initiated into the “mystery revelation”. The meaning derives from the initiatory rites of the pagan mysteries.[web 4] Also appearing in the New Testament is the related noun μυστήριον (mustérion or mystḗrion), the root word of the English term “mystery”. The term means “anything hidden”, a mystery or secret, of which initiation is necessary. In the New Testament it reportedly takes the meaning of the counsels of God, once hidden but now revealed in the Gospel or some fact thereof, the Christian revelation generally, and/or particular truths or details of the Christian revelation.[web 5]
According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, the term μυστήριον in classical Greek meant “a hidden thing”, “secret”. A particular meaning it took in Classical antiquity was a religious secret or religious secrets, confided only to the initiated and not to be communicated by them to ordinary mortals. In the Septuagint and the New Testament the meaning it took was that of a hidden purpose or counsel, a secret will. It is sometimes used for the hidden wills of humans, but is more often used for the hidden will of God. Elsewhere in the Bible it takes the meaning of the mystic or hidden sense of things. It is used for the secrets behind sayings, names, or behind images seen in visions and dreams. The Vulgate often translates the Greek term to the Latin sacramentum (sacrament).[web 5]
The related noun μύστης (mustis or mystis, singular) means the initiate, the person initiated to the mysteries.[web 5] According to Ana Jiménez San Cristobal in her study of Greco-Roman mysteries and Orphism, the singular form μύστης and the plural form μύσται are used in ancient Greek texts to mean the person or persons initiated to religious mysteries. These followers of mystery religions belonged to a select group, where access was only gained through an initiation. She finds that the terms were associated with the term βάκχος (Bacchus), which was used for a special class of initiates of the Orphic mysteries. The terms are first found connected in the writings of Heraclitus. Such initiates are identified in texts with the persons who have been purified and have performed certain rites. A passage of the Cretans by Euripides seems to explain that the μύστης (initiate) who devotes himself to an ascetic life, renounces sexual activities, and avoids contact with the dead becomes known as βάκχος. Such initiates were believers in the god Dionysus Bacchus who took on the name of their god and sought an identification with their deity.
Until the sixth century the practice of what is now called mysticism was referred to by the term contemplatio, c.q. theoria. According to Johnson, “[b]oth contemplation and mysticism speak of the eye of love which is looking at, gazing at, aware of divine realities.”
According to Peter Moore, the term “mysticism” is “problematic but indispensable.” It is a generic term which joins together into one concept separate practices and ideas which developed separately, According to Dupré, “mysticism” has been defined in many ways, and Merkur notes that the definition, or meaning, of the term “mysticism” has changed through the ages.[web 1] Moore further notes that the term “mysticism” has become a popular label for “anything nebulous, esoteric, occult, or supernatural.”
Parsons warns that “what might at times seem to be a straightforward phenomenon exhibiting an unambiguous commonality has become, at least within the academic study of religion, opaque and controversial on multiple levels”. Because of its Christian overtones, and the lack of similar terms in other cultures, some scholars regard the term “mysticism” to be inadequate as a useful descriptive term. Other scholars regard the term to be an inauthentic fabrication,[web 1] the “product of post-Enlightenment universalism.”
Union with the Divine or Absolute and mystical experience
Deriving from Neo-Platonism and Henosis, mysticism is popularly known as union with God or the Absolute. In the 13th century the term unio mystica came to be used to refer to the “spiritual marriage,” the ecstasy, or rapture, that was experienced when prayer was used “to contemplate both God’s omnipresence in the world and God in his essence.”[web 1] In the 19th century, under the influence of Romanticism, this “union” was interpreted as a “religious experience,” which provides certainty about God or a transcendental reality.[web 1][note 1]
An influential proponent of this understanding was William James (1842–1910), who stated that “in mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.” William James popularized this use of the term “religious experience”[note 2] in his The Varieties of Religious Experience,[web 2] contributing to the interpretation of mysticism as a distinctive experience, comparable to sensory experiences.[web 2] Religious experiences belonged to the “personal religion,” which he considered to be “more fundamental than either theology or ecclesiasticism”. He gave a Perennialist interpretation to religious experience, stating that this kind of experience is ultimately uniform in various traditions.[note 3]
McGinn notes that the term unio mystica, although it has Christian origins, is primarily a modern expression. McGinn argues that “presence” is more accurate than “union”, since not all mystics spoke of union with God, and since many visions and miracles were not necessarily related to union. He also argues that we should speak of “consciousness” of God’s presence, rather than of “experience”, since mystical activity is not simply about the sensation of God as an external object, but more broadly about “new ways of knowing and loving based on states of awareness in which God becomes present in our inner acts.”
However, the idea of “union” does not work in all contexts. For example, in Advaita Vedanta, there is only one reality (Brahman) and therefore nothing other than reality to unite with it—Brahman in each person (atman) has always in fact been identical to Brahman all along. Dan Merkur also notes that union with God or the Absolute is a too limited definition, since there are also traditions which aim not at a sense of unity, but of nothingness, such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart.[web 1] According to Merkur, Kabbala and Buddhism also emphasize nothingness.[web 1] Blakemore and Jennett note that “definitions of mysticism […] are often imprecise.” They further note that this kind of interpretation and definition is a recent development which has become the standard definition and understanding.[web 6][note 4]
According to Gelman, “A unitive experience involves a phenomenological de-emphasis, blurring, or eradication of multiplicity, where the cognitive significance of the experience is deemed to lie precisely in that phenomenological feature”.