There be dragons!

Monday, October 20, 2008

An exchange on Mysticism (Jewish and otherwise)

Wise Men from my Past –
Greetings from the west coast – I hope everything is wellwith all of you! I am writing in search of information and research advice… While searching for a class at the beginning of this quarter to fulfill a “global citizen” requirement, I discovered – and am now enrolled – in a class entitled Kabbalah: The Mystical Teachings of Judaism. Thus far, the class has been exceptional; the opportunity to talk to Moshe Idel and Daniel Matt more than makes up for some intense reading… We’re going over the basic history and literature, before looking more in depth at key elements of Kabbalah. The content is interesting and enlightening, particularly against the backdrop of Catholicism. (Although I’ve heard the word esoteric more times than it ever should beapplied to a single tradition…) It turns out that Jewish mysticism, like mysticism in general, has had a tough history. It’s definitely a tradition that’s had to carve out a place in the respectable world. (A discussion of what exactly Madonna is doing to that position can be left for another time.) In fact, a comprehensive, scholarly account of Jewish mysticism didn’t even exist until Gershom Scholem – and he published Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism in 1941. 1941! Basically, I’m looking for the equivalent of Scholem in the Christian tradition. In what I‘ve seen so far, it looks like a lot of the literature is either talking about “holistic Christianity,” and/or has minimal value outside a pop culture superficiality and a list of famous Christian mystics. Do you, in your collective experience/wisdom, have any advice on where (or to whom) I should look for some solid scholarship of this tradition? Also, it seems that the literature tends to focus more on separate trends within Christian mysticism, rather than the trajectory of the tradition as a whole… if you have a few minutes, I would love to hear your thoughts on this. Also, feel free to forward this along to anyone you think might have relevant information – I would greatly appreciate it. Thanks! KO.

Dear KO,
It’s both good to hear from you and gratifying to be included somehow in someone’s “past.” Your class sounds very fine, esp. if you’re in the hands of good teachers. I find, by the bye, that appealing to “world citizenship” has not helped me avoid the penalties for breaking local traffic laws or tax evasion—but that’s another matter. I’m afraid that the Christian world doesn’t have some of Scholem’s caliber in the historical/systematic treatment of mysticism, though you may wish to consult Evelyn Underhill’s landmark work on mysticism or, maybe, Rudolf Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy.” If you wish to find “direct discourse” on the matter, there is no one better than Garrigou-Lagrange’s “Three Ages of the Interior Life” which is a something of a behemoth and probably not the sort of thing that you’ll find helpful now. One thing to keep in mind is that Scholem, like Rosensweig, take their bearings at least as much by German existentialism as by the “tradition” of Jewish mysticism. Christian teachers who come from similar influences tend to read the data of Christian mysticism in a way that falsifies that tradition, e.g., either Heideggerian world-night negation or good old-time Kantian “apophatic negation=noumenal unknowableness.” Keep on truckin’ Dr. BS.

KO! Wonderful to hear from you! I think of you often, and it’s great to see your mom here now and then too. Sounds like you’re having a wonderfultime, and this particular class sounds fascinating. I fear I don’t personally know of good scholarship about the phenomenon of mysticism in Catholicism (which certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t any!). Traditionally, a Catholic mystic’s experience is weighed in the context of its adherence to and/or contribution to the Catholic faith. Since the phenomenon of “mysticism” is fairly universal—as is prayer, belief in god(s), a moral sense, etc.—the typical Catholic interest in it is necessarily contextualized as a facet of an interest in the Church. What’s most interesting to me in the current attention to mysticism given by scholars, rock stars, etc., is why? And why now? My gut is that “mysticism” fits well with contemporary philosophy of radical subjectivity: there are no universal laws of nature that bind or guide us, nor any real demands made on us by an omnipotent God. What matters in the realm of “values” then is what we “feel,” and whether our feelings are “sincere” and “authentic.” And if what we feel sincerely is “spiritual,” it is beyond analysis and therefore beyond debate or criticism. My own experience, then, of spirituality or mysticism becomes part of the radically subjective creative work of art that is…me. A locus classicus of earlier thought that has brought us to this point is Rousseau’s section of Emile titled, “Confessions of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar”; I highly recommend it. I should make the point that many serious Jewish scholars of Orthodox and Conservative persuasion are distressed by the new focus on Kabbalah, abstracted from what they view as the necessary prior life commitments to the Law and the Prophets. I’m reminded of a funny thing a crotchety old theology prof of mine once said: “Mysticism: it begins in mist and ends in schism.” Often, of course, that has been the case. I myself come from a family whose history is rooted in Mormonism, a movement based on claims of mystical experience by the prophet Joseph Smith. I now think that Smith’s visions were untrue (i.e. not of God), although I am convinced that he sincerely and authentically felt them to be true. But then, who am I to criticize someone’s “mystical experience”?... Bless you, KO. The Head Hamster.

An interesting reply, The HH. Particularly your question of “why?” For those of us growing up in the Vatican Too Much era that seems a perennial question. Why, after all, can U2 draw a crowd of thousands, while the Mass draws only a handful and then only sporadically. Was it always so? I think that the Church, God bless her, is guilty of two things that have driven crowds from the Narthex to the Anthrax.
1. killed all spiritual joy by oversystematizing Catholicism into a series of laws. Any time a religion becomes so calcified that it replaces law with human need it is doomed to failure (or at least cataclysm). Before Vat II this seems to have been the case. The attempt to put everything into a codified form served the great purpose of giving a powerful catechism of doctrine to which later generations could refer. But that doctrine was only doxa and thus precipitated the negative effect of reinforcing public opinion at the expense of authentic creativity. It was the Gregory/Irish monks struggle all over again. Consequently, human nature being what it is, most people gravitated to fulfilling only the letter of the law (what they knew of it) and, like Scobie in Graham Greene’s excellent novel “the Heart of the Matter”, lost all the spirit of the law. Cataclysm followed Catechism.
2. destroyed all nobility by introducing flabby unromantic substitutes for authentic spirituality. The backlash of any totalitarian regime is a Dionysic ecstasy wherein all law is cast off for what feels good. This is the fear that most adherents to esoteric (there’s that bloody word) philosophy feel when they see Kabbalah introduced to the uninitiated who have not done any prior preparation. It’s a bit like the Eleusinian mysteries being revealed to everybody. After Vat II the Church allowed such spiritual excess in through the open windows and the liturgical dance, hip-swaying, butt-slapping, hemp-smoking practices that emerged were a direct result. Now there is a generation (yours) having grown up completely severed from their heritage, thinking that Marty Haugen or Joncas are the norm for high mass (having never heard names like Palestrina, Victoria, Brumel, Allegri, Anerio, or Praetorius, or Taverner, Part, Poulenc, or Faure for that matter).

So now the situation for spirituality is either creative, emotional, sappy, crunchy, weird, heterodox OR strict, overly lawful, rigid, inflexible, joyless, orthodox. Neither camp strikes me as either esoteric or mystical or Catholic for that matter. Or maybe it’s just me. Abecedarius Rex.

Dear All,

I don’t know much about philosophy of religion but what comes to mind is a couple of books by Louis Dupre. Like “The other dimension: a search for meaning in religious attitudes” or his compilation “Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism”. From the theological perspective a good place to start could be Simon Tugwell OP “The ways of imperfection”.

Do you think it could be valuable?

Father The Buda, OP

Thanks, all for the reading suggestions (I'll definitely be spending some substantial time in the library) – and the various views on this issue...

I, too, found The Head Hamster's response very interesting, and I think it brings up an interesting point; it may be helpful to a have a conclusive definition of what mysticism is. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that actually exists. Thus it is possible to come up with the seeming contradiction that mysticism is a subjective “feeling of God” on the one hand; and a specific experience that can only be attained after rigorous – halakhic – preparation, on the other. Of course, I’m not going to try to come up with a working definition – but I can make a few points.

First, mysticism is not what popular culture seems to think it is. The idea of mysticism as a subjective spirituality in which you meditate, bow to the sun, eat tofu and go along you merry way can pretty much be thrown out. In my understanding, mysticism can be characterized more accurately by 1) a belief in a reality of God that surpasses human reason, 2) a set of laws or practices by which an individual achieves the goal of 3) intimate unification of God and the soul. Thus the Jewish mystics, for example, speak of En Sof, the divinity in his highest aspect, which cannot be imagined. En Sof wills itself to be revealed, and pretty soon we have the created world, and Torah, and the Law. (It may be a bit more complicated than that…) It is easy to see where a problem might arise, as there is a certain element of mysticism that defies human reason, and this may lead to the belief that we are then free to do as we feel. It seems to me, however, that mysticism claims just the opposite: we are more in need of a set of laws, not less. The subtle, but key, distinction has to do with authority: it can be given to God, who chooses to reveal to us the one Truth that defies comprehension, and the practices by which we attain this truth; or, it can by given to John Doe, who dictates, “Because I feel it, so it is…”

Second: if we then rule out the subjective appeal of mysticism, the question “why?” remains. I agree that Catholic mysticism must be viewed through the framework of the Church, but I think it is much more than a sort of added bonus. In the case of Kabbakah, Scholem (okay, I like the German!) refered to mysticism as the beating heart of Judaism. I don’t think it would be particularly difficult to make a similar observation within the Church. To make this claim, however, it might be a good idea to have a more solid grasp on what Catholic mysticism is… and a good place to start might be with the history, literature, and overall trends of the tradition – hence the initial inquiry, and the German appeal. I agree with ABCRex's analysis – and in fact am quite distressed by the fact – that the Church today seems to offer us with only two extreme options, neither of which is particularly appealing. In my opinion, mysticism is coming to the fore because of its potential to rectify the unfortunate situation of the Church. It is precisely this tradition that enables the observation of the spirit of the Law, as it fosters profound respect for its origins in divine revelation, and for its power to result in sublime unification. It also a mystical understanding of the Mass, as a concrete experience of the presence of God, that will expose the inacceptable nature of the “butt-slapping.” Finally, mysticism can re-introduce some of the mystery and depth – from the angelic, or eros traditions, for example – that are certainly present in the church, but sadly lacking from common knowledge. It is wholly possible that the cultural popularity of mysticism is just religious overflow, and stems from these same desires, for nobility, mystery, and order.

Of course, my hopeful fascination with Catholic mysticism may simply be driven by an aversion to kosher and Lifeteen… just a thought.
I intensely enjoy hearing your comments, and know that the great Providence Academy has irrevocably shaped my life.
If I happen to write the definitive work on Catholic mysticism, I’ll dedicate it to all of you…

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