Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher

Mysticism at the mall

Ross Douthat’s wonderful column yesterday explores the cheapening of mysticism via the mass market. Excerpt:

Mysticism is dying, and taking true religion with it. Monasteries have dwindled. Contemplative orders have declined. Our religious leaders no longer preach the renunciation of the world; our culture scoffs at the idea. The closest most Americans come to real asceticism is giving up chocolate, cappuccinos, or (in my own not-quite-Francis-of-Assisi case) meat for lunch for Lent.
This, at least, is the stern message of Luke Timothy Johnson, writing in the latest issue of the Catholic journal Commonweal. As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.


Before I get back to Ross, it’s worth taking a short detour through Luke Timothy Johnson’s essay, which argues that religion without mysticism is dead. He writes that yes, there is a grand battle today between the forces of religion and anti-religion. But:

More significant even than that struggle, though, is the clash occurring within religious traditions. The battle within each of the three great monotheistic religions is between the exoteric and esoteric versions of each. In my view, the contest is already so far advanced as virtually to be decided. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
As the name suggests, the exoteric focuses on external expressions of religion. Its concern is for the observance of divine commandments, the performance of public ritual, and the celebration of great festivals. In its desire for a common creed and practice, its tropism is toward religious law, and it seeks to shape a visible and moral society molded by such law. To form a visible community publicly obedient to divine command requires an explicit social vision, and exoteric religion is overtly political. The goal, after all, is the realization of the kingdom of God as an empirical reality; the point is religion in its public dimension.
The esoteric, in contrast, finds the point of religion less in external performance than in the inner experience and devotion of the heart; less in the public liturgy than in the individual’s search for God. The esoteric dimension of religion privileges the transforming effect of asceticism and prayer. It seeks an experience of the divine more intense, more personal, and more immediate than any made available by law or formal ritual. The esoteric element in religion finds expression above all in mysticism. Mystics pursue the inner reality of the relationship between humans and God: they long for true knowledge of what alone is ultimately real, and desire absolute love for what is alone infinitely desirable.


Johnson argues that healthy religion balances the mystical (esoteric) with the active (exoteric) dimensions … but that the mystical was suppressed for so long that it now re-emerges as a form of pop spirituality. But, he continues, the esoteric unanchored in an exoteric tradition (Christian, Jewish, Islamic) amounts to the spirituality of flibbertigibbets. (Or, as I would put it, a woo-woo gloss on Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). As Ross points out, though, just because true mysticism has been marginalized within formal religion doesn’t mean the hunger for contact with the numinous has disappeared. Pop mysticism is everywhere in our culture. The craving for it is real, and we are wrong to dismiss it or mock it outright. But we seem to content ourselves with satisfying that legitimate hunger with junk food. Here’s Ross:


By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.

Boy, does this ever speak to me. (Read on past the jump for more)…

I’ve always been mystically inclined in my spirituality, but also lazy and impatient. When I’ve hungered for a numinous experience of the divine, I’ve tended to see it as a matter of reading the right book to discover the secret. There is, of course, no secret wisdom that will help you plug in to the divine without much effort. Anything that promises you that is a false mysticism, is a lie. From my own experience, I’ve only been able to have truly transformative numinous experiences after submitting to a prayer discipline of some time. It’s like that with my body, too: in the past, whenever I’d be sick of my slack belly, I’d look for some fad diet that promised to help me shed pounds quickly and easily. It’s all a lie: the only way to lose weight in a healthy way is to both diet and exercise. Similarly, absent a rare road to Damascus moment, you’re not going to experience God mystically unless you seek Him earnestly through regular prayer, fasting and ascesis.
The Orthodox Christian way is the way of ascesis and mysticism. I hadn’t understood this from the outside, but once you enter Orthodoxy and take it seriously, it is not so much a set of rules to be obeyed as it is teaching to bring you to spiritual health. I was reading around in a book over the weekend in which an Orthodox bishop taught that there are no good people and bad people, there are only those who are suffering in various degrees from sickness, and those who are healed (the saints). Orthodoxy is to be seen as the authentic way of healing the soul. From an Orthodox point of view, you cannot really know God unless you know him mystically, through prayer. The word Orthodox theologians use to describe this way of knowing God is “noetic,” meaning, “related to the nous.” This is a good short introduction to the Orthodox mindset, and this from OrthodoxWiki explains what “nous” means in Orthodox spirituality.
In Orthodoxy, we can only be healed (= sanctified) through constant purification of the nous, through prayer, fasting and other forms of asceticism. Ascesis is not considered optional, or something only for monks, nuns and other spiritual athletes. It is, in Orthodox teaching, the normal way of Christian spirituality (though certainly the severe acts of ascesis practiced by monastics, especially on Mount Athos, are extraordinary). Mind you, many, many Orthodox Christians don’t know about this, or don’t care. But to be a normal Orthodox Christian is to be mystically inclined, and mysticism of the soul cannot be separated from “orthopraxis,” or right practice. The exoteric and the esoteric must live in balance. The thing I’ve observed from living and practicing Orthodox Christianity for nearly four years is how absolutely central mysticism is to the life and thought of the Church. You may live as a Protestant or a Catholic and never deal directly with the mystical dimension of the Christian faith, which includes ascesis. But I don’t know how you can do that as an Orthodox Christian.
The book, by the way, for curious laymen to read on this is “The Mountain of Silence” by Kyriacos Markides. It’s a fantastic introduction to Orthodox spirituality, very engaging and approachable.

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John E - Agn Stoic

posted March 8, 2010 at 11:08 am

Would you discount the mystic experiences available through the use of marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms and LSD?

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Rod Dreher

posted March 8, 2010 at 11:27 am

Not necessarily, but I would say that they are ersatz. I wouldn’t discount their authenticity in principle, but I would worry about the extent to which they revealed something true about the nature of reality and spirit, versus simply causing one to hallucinate. It is an interesting question, though. If, through the use of LSD, a man has a profound mystical experience of the essential oneness of reality, is that an illegitimate way of knowing, versus that of a Buddhist monk who has spent his life in ascetic practice to reach the same realization?
Maybe a good analogy is the man who buys a bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate winning the lottery, versus a man who buys a bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate becoming a millionaire through decades of hard, disciplined work. The fine Champagne is the same in both cases, but the taste will be different, if you follow me.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Hasn’t it been ever thus? All Christians are called to this encounter with God but as the churches try to bring it to people they cheapen it and water it down. How much worse does it get than selling indulgences (even if it was originally a form of alms-giving for people who couldn’t go on pilgrimages)? When you think about it, the Mass is pretty wild (receiving Christ, a foreshadowing the heavenly banquet and the consummation of the world) but the average Sunday Mass seems pretty mundane. The practice of the Christian churches seems pretty correct–repeat the Scriptures, the sacraments, etc. until it sinks in.

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Franklin Evans

posted March 8, 2010 at 12:52 pm

The following is brief because I see this as a very complex topic, and there’s just not time to cover it adequately…
The construct of the shaman, as a key component in some belief systems, is important in two senses: The shaman receives training, which mitigates the dangers involved; the shaman is expected to be the intermediary between the people and their spiritual realm.
The Christian cleric, in this sense, is the shaman.
So, Rod’s comparison between the immediacy of a psychoactive substance and the long path of a monastic approach is valid and deserves examination. However, I would submit that the danger involved is the same. From the shamanistic POV, a person without training can be injured, psychically/spiritually at least, physically likely as well. From the Christian POV, the question is continually asked: How can you be sure that your revelation/contact/etc. is actually from God and not from one of His nefarious adversaries?
In the Christian case, the answer begins with “because the intermediary has training.” So, for example, there is no clear, valid comparison between the college student dropping a tab and encountering universal love, and the shaman who has spent a lifetime learning how to make the drug, how to use it safely and how to distinguish between its hallucinatory effects and its strengthening of his (rarely her) connection with the divine. So too, I would imagine, would be the comparison between a child or teenager claiming to have had a vision of the Blessed Mary, and a monk or nun having an epiphany or vision.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Re. the experiences one might have using LSD, I’m not so sure they’re ersatz, as Rod suspects. LSD may well open us up to a dimension we’re usually not aware of. The point is, experiences are not of value in and of themselves, even truly spiritual ones. As so many staretz have said, one shouldn’t focus on experiences; one should just focus on knowing and loving God.

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Frog Leg

posted March 8, 2010 at 1:30 pm

It is an interesting division between the exoteric and esoteric. Certainly there needs to be balance between them. Almost all churches however now emphasize the exoteric, just in different ways. You don’t have to be preaching the Prosperity Gospel nonsense to be placing an undue emphasis on the exoteric. The Catholic Church and fundamentalist churches are just as guilty of placing this overemphasis on the exoteric however. For the Catholic Church the enormous emphasis on dogma has squeezed out any mysticism. It has been years since I have heard anything from the pulpit on mysticism. If they spent 1/10 of the time speaking about mysticism that they spend on abortion I would be much happier. While being pro-life is important, this is firmly part of the exoteric. It might be a better emphasis than the Prosperity Gospel, but there is still a large problem with overemphasis here.

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the stupid Chris

posted March 8, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Bonhoffer spoke to Douthat’s article and this topic generally when he wrote about “cheap grace,” mystical experience that demands nothing pf us.
This, to answer John E, is how I see the problem of drug-induced experience. Not that it’s “wrong” per se, but that without preparation, follow-up and follow-through the best that can be said is that it’s “cheap grace.”

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posted March 8, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Grace isn’t cheap, it’s free.
How much of all this “ascesis” is nothing more than a fancy word for salvation-by-works (otherwise known as, “I can do this on my own, I don’t need Christ)? I’ll be good, I’ll be a religious professional, and hence I will earn my way in. Hasn’t religious professionalism been a blight on the way, East and West?
So too, I would imagine, would be the comparison between a child or teenager claiming to have had a vision of the Blessed Mary, and a monk or nun having an epiphany or vision.
Correct me here if I’m wrong, but haven’t most of the widely accepted visions of the Virgin involved untutored children? “Father, I thank you that you have concealed these things from the clever and the wise, and revealed them to mere babes…”?

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Rod Dreher

posted March 8, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Oda, as a Christian, do you pray faithfully? Do you give alms? Do you fast? Do you labor to “die to yourself,” as Christians are commanded to do in Scripture? If you do, then you practice ascesis. If it is done without a change of heart, then it’s what I think Protestants call “works-righteousness.” As strict as the Orthodox Lent is regarding fasting, the Church teaches that a fast that doesn’t involve repentance and a real change of heart is no better than a “demon’s fast,” for even the demons get by without eating.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 5:58 pm

It’s none of your business, of course, but I do do all these things.
I just don’t think that any of this will earn me any preferment in the Kingdom, nor do I think that some monk at Mt. Athos is necessarily more likely to receive direct communication from God than I am. Or than some untutored child in Portugal is. God distributes His favors as He wishes, without reference to our self-conferred, mostly imaginary rankings in the spiritual life.
Bonhoffer spoke to Douthat’s article and this topic generally when he wrote about “cheap grace,” mystical experience that demands nothing of us.
Mystical experience demands nothing of us, by way of advance qualifications. The experience of the Spirit of God demands everything of us, but that “everything” may not involve any practice visible to anyone else, or sometimes even to ourselves.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Let’s ask the experts-
….The answer seems to be that the voice or vision may be either of these two things: and that pathology and religion have both been over-hasty in their eagerness to snatch at these phenomena for their own purposes. Many—perhaps most—voices do but give the answer which the subject has already suggested to itself; many—perhaps most—visions are the picturings of dreams and desires. Some are morbid hallucinations: some even symptoms of insanity. All probably borrow their shape, as apart from their content, from suggestions already present in the mind of the seer. ….
“I am really terrified,” says St. John of the Cross, with his customary blunt common sense, “by what passes among us in these days. Anyone who has barely begun to meditate, if he becomes conscious of words of this kind during his self-recollection, pronounces them forthwith to be the work of God; and, convinced that they are so, goes about proclaiming ‘God has told me this,’ or ‘I have had that answer from God.’ But all is illusion and fancy; such an one has only been speaking to himself. Besides, the desire for these words, and the attention they give to them, end by persuading men that all the observations which they address to themselves are the responses of God.” These are the words of one who was at once the sanest of saints and the most penetrating of psychologists: words which our modern unruly amateurs of the “subconscious” might well take to heart.

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posted March 8, 2010 at 7:44 pm

I don’t think mysticism is dying out. It’s alive and well in the emerging church. And I saw 10 new members join one of our local buddhist congregations yesterday, signing on to a religion that offers practically nothing else — not even a god. (If you can call meditation and enlightenment without the supernatural ‘mysticism’ – I’m not clear on that).
Where I would agree is that I’ve never seen even half that many people join a church that didn’t offer mysticism. Letting a priest do my mystical experiences is about as attractive as letting a cook eat my dinner for me — and about as nourishing.

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the stupid Chris

posted March 8, 2010 at 7:58 pm

Of course grace is free. But how we receive and experience grace is up to us. We can be prepared to recognize it, to receive it, and to allow it to transform our lives. We can be totally blind to its presence. We can recognize it but only too late. We can recognize it but become distracted.
Think of the parable of the sower…the seeds being freely dispersed, the results being up to the condition of the ground upon which they were scattered.
Which is not to say that we earn anything, but that if we haven’t done the work of sharpening our senses and preparing ourselves to receive grace we could easily miss, or misconstrue, the greatest gift we can ever receive.

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Chris Jones

posted March 9, 2010 at 1:25 am

Grace isn’t cheap, it’s free.
Well yes, it is:
… his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue … (2 Pt 1.3)
So “all things” are given to us, not earned by us. And yet:
… beside this, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness charity … wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure; for if ye do these things, ye shall never fail (2 Pt 5-8, 10)
So despite the fact that all things are given to us (2 Pt 1.3), it remains to us to be diligent to make our election sure (2 Pt 1.10). It is precisely for this that the Church’s traditional ascetic disciplines are given to us for our soul’s health.
There is nothing in traditional Christian ascesis that militates against justification by grace through faith; but neither does justification by faith give us license to sit on our derrieres and not fight the spiritual warfare that Christ calls us to. “Grace isn’t cheap, it’s free” is a nice slogan but if it means that being a Christian doesn’t involve spiritual struggle then it is totally bogus.

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posted March 9, 2010 at 2:27 am

There is a shortcut – psychedelic drugs. They’re used widely in many religions for exactly this purpose, and the contemporary linkage with New Age religions in particular is largely an accident of history – many 20th century psychedelics were first used in a distinctly Christian fashion. The pioneering “Good Friday Experiment” dosed Harvard divinity students in chapel and took reports of encounters with the divine. An early pioneer of LSD, Al Hubbard thought it was perfect for inspiring particularly Catholic experiences of transcendence, and did some of his work under the aegis of the Church in Canada. He derived the influential theory of “set and setting” – that the particular character of the psychedelic experience is determined by mindset and the sensory input experienced, not by any particular properties of the drug or biochemical action – in part by noting that people told to fixate on a painting of the Virgin Mother would tend to have good trips, and people directed to fixate on an image of the bleeding, disembodied, thorn-wrapped Sacred Heart would tend to have bad trips.

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Mont D. Law

posted March 9, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I thought that was Jesus’ whole point – that strict adherence to the law was not enough by itself to please God. That what was in your heart was more important. I was always of the opinion this and his insistence that God loved the sinners and the despised more then the righteous were what made him so radical.
Also I’m not sure any one has provided a good reason why the visions of Simeon Stylites are more worthy then those of a Yanomamo shaman.

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posted March 10, 2010 at 1:08 pm

“the stupid Chris
March 8, 2010 7:58 PM
Of course grace is free. But how we receive and experience grace is up to us. We can be prepared to recognize it, to receive it, and to allow it to transform our lives. We can be totally blind to its presence. We can recognize it but only too late. We can recognize it but become distracted.
Think of the parable of the sower…the seeds being freely dispersed, the results being up to the condition of the ground upon which they were scattered.
Which is not to say that we earn anything, but that if we haven’t done the work of sharpening our senses and preparing ourselves to receive grace we could easily miss, or misconstrue, the greatest gift we can ever receive.”
Thanks for that, is all I can say. Words more than that aren’t doing it for me right now…

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posted March 10, 2010 at 4:54 pm

The current vogue of “spirituality” is obviously a reach for mysticism. Those who aspire to be spiritual but not religious are mainly trying to achieve the Beatific Vision without any elements of authority. They certainly aren’t the first to make this attempt.

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Julien Peter Benney

posted March 11, 2010 at 6:50 am

Very good point. It is a difference between Eastern and Western Christianity that I have noted for a very long time, and this mystical approach of Orthodoxy is – as you may have noticed me say before – something that would have appealed to the original counterculture of the 1950s and even to their precursors the Decadents had they known of it.
It is, Mont D. Law, very true that a conservative needs to be much focused on the heart. When I look to the absolutely deepest root of the culture wars, I have come to see them as truly psychological: the conflict between a liberal thinking type who believes in man-made law and a conservative feeling type (I borrow terms from psychology but there is no better alternative as far as I know) who believes in highly definite natural law.

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