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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


The Unity of Mystical Traditions: The Transformation of Consciousness in Tibetan and German Mysticism by Randall Studstill (Studies in the History of Religions, Vol. 107: Brill Academic) argues that mystical doctrines and practices initiate parallel transformative processes in the consciousness of mystics. This thesis is supported through a comparative analysis of Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen (rdzogs-chen) and the medieval German mysticism of Eckhart, Suso, and Tauler. These traditions are interpreted using a system/cybernetic model of consciousness. This model provides a theoretical framework for assessing the cognitive effects of mystical doctrines and practices and showing how different doctrines and practices may nevertheless initiate common transformative processes. This systems approach contributes to current philosophical discourse on mysticism by (1) making possible a precise analysis of the cognitive effects of mystical doctrines and practices, and (2) reconciling mystical heterogeneity with the essential unity of mystical traditions.

Randall Studstill, Ph.D. (2002) in Religious Studies, The Graduate Theological Union, is an Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at San Jose State University. He has published on the phenomenological method of Mircea Eliade and the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

The purpose of this study is to present and support a mystical pluralist interpretation of mysticism. Through the application of a systems-based understanding of mind to Dzogchen and German mysticism, Studstill shows that the doctrines and practices of these two mystical traditions and by implication, mystical traditions in general, bring about common transformative processes in the consciousness of the mystic, experientially realized as a deepening attunement to the Real. The mystical pluralist thesis has close affinities to a number of other essentialist and transpersonal approaches to mysticism. Mystical pluralism, Forman's perennial psychology, Combs' systems approach, shares the same core thesis: mystical paths function in similar ways to decondition structures of ordinary consciousness. Studstill goes beyond this basic idea by addressing in more precise terms how mystical doctrines and practices cause transformation and what this transformation involves. It also addresses areas of the mystical data often ignored or left unexplained by essentialist, constructivist, and transpersonal theories: the nature of visionary mystical experiences and their relation to contentless, unmediated mystical states. The role of doctrine and ethics in generating mystical transformation, and the intrinsic epistemic value of mystical experiences is also delineated. As comprehensive as this account is in its reach and clarity, this reviewer finds a greater insistence on a divorce with ordinary consciousness that this study most seriously breaches aspects of the traditions taken to support  and account for mystical pluralism. There is too much insistence upon transformation rather than upon the recovery of the Real in the real of ordinary experience.

 For Studstill mystical pluralism is justified on two levels. First, it is justified by the fundamental inadequacy of constructivism alone. Specifically, Studstill argues that constructivism is inadequate in its description of the mystical data, and both philosophically and psychologically problematic. The problems with constructivism provide the grist for an alternative view of mystical that Studstill calls mystical pluralism, based on its own philosophical, epistemological, and psychological merits, as well as its ability to account for the data. Studstill explains what a systems approach to consciousness and mysticism involves, reviewing some of the general principles of systems theory and discussing how such principles may be applied to consciousness or mind. Next the study presents doctrinally nuanced mystical data through overviews of two mystical traditions: Dzogchen and German mysticism respectively. Using the systems-based model of consciousness, Studstills interpretation of these traditions focuses on the issue of therapeutic efficacy: how they might transform the consciousness of the practitioner who internalizes them and lives them. Studstill concludes the study by comparing the traditions from a systems perspective. This systems approach shows how both Dzogchen and German mysticism function to elicit common transformative processes and thereby supports a mystical pluralist interpretation of mystical traditions.

I admire the close reading and clear presentation that Studstills work accounts for mysticism as the conscious alternation of conscious experience through meditative exercise. However Studstills account stresses the phenomenal, peak experience aspect of mysticism rather than the subtle deepening of ordinary awareness. I am reminded of Underhills youthful work Mysticism, 1901 which also tended to stress the extraordinary, to her own later more subtle formulations of contemplative experience. Perhaps Studstill will also exercise a more moderate and inclusive revision of his views, if he continues to develop his systems approach to a wider variety of religious experience.

Dimensions of Mystical Experiences: Empirical Studies and Psychological Links by Ralph W. Hood (International Series in the Psychology of Religion: Editions Rodopi B.V.) consists of a series of papers, all of which have been previously published. They form but a small portion of many papers I have published on mysticism. However, these 16 papers are representative of the scope and range of what amounts to a very narrow methodological perspective for the study of mysticism. These papers primarily use a measurement approach with three major emphases.

First, we have long argued that mysticism can be measured with the same degree of sophistication and reliability as any other construct in psychology. It is simply a mistake to think that mysticism is either so rare or so vague as to be incapable of reliable measurement. Our own measurement efforts have been based on the groundbreaking work of Stace (1960) who detailed with some precision the basic phenomenological or "common core" characteristics of mystical experience. Versions of this measure (M‑Scale) are discussed in Chapters 3 and 4. They serve as operationalized measures of Stace's criteria for mystical experience. With the simple caveat that the Mysticism Scale measures reports of mystical experience, and not the experience itself, we can measure mysticism as we measure any other construct of interest. This is one very narrow meaning of "empirical"‑the simple assignment of numbers to psychological phenomena. It is part of the American focus in the psychology of religion, so enthusiastically endorsed by Gorsuch (1984). Our own enthusiasm for measurement as a "paradigm" for psychology of religion is less intense. It is only one approach to the study of mysticism. The mere fact that we are able to construct useful and reliable scales from Stace's criteria allows the study of mysticism to enter into, if not mainstream psychology, at least the mainstream of the psychology of religion.

Second, the fact that the report of mysticism can be measured allows us to correlate this report with other phenomena of interest to psychology of religion. In the chapters that constitute Parts 4 and 5 of this book, we demonstrate meaningful patterns of correlations between measures of the report of mysticism and variables of interest to the psychology of religion. These include not only reported mysticisms relationships to key constructs, but the evaluation and assessment of conditions that trigger mysticism and account for its differential evaluation. As with much of the American psychology of religion, correlational research is little more than suggestive of relationships that might serve to suggest causal relationships. Correlation is another aspect of what many mean by "empirical."

Third, in the chapters of Part 3 we present several studies that demonstrate the possibility of quasi‑experimental studies of mysticism. We have for years thought it curious that mysticism, long a focus of techniques surely thought to increase its occurrence among the devout of the great faith traditions, was somehow thought immune from quasi‑experimental study. Faith traditions have given us ample reason to believe that conditions can be arranged to foster the occurrence of mysticism. One can view many religious rituals as providing both set and setting to facilitate the occurrence of mystical experience. This is what the great faith traditions have done for centuries. Specific techniques of contemplative prayer or solitary meditation have been practiced throughout the centuries in virtually all of the great faith traditions. The laboratory can surely serve as a setting to foster mystical experience as can any solitary cell in a monastery. The quasi‑experimental study of mysticism is a third sense of "empirical" represented in this book.

Thus, insofar as this book is about the empirical study of mysticism, its focus is narrow indeed. Mysticism, or better said its report, is measured, correlated with other variables, and differentially elicited in a variety of quasi‑experimental contexts. Hence, the title of this book, aptly suggested by Jacob Belzen: Dimensions of Mystical Experiences: Empirical Studies and

Psychological Links. Some will applaud the uniquely American empiricism of this book, while others will recognize serious limitations to what is a very narrow empiricism indeed. Measurement, correlational, and quasi‑experimental pieces demonstrate the relevant range of material framing the contemporary psychological study of mysticism‑at least from an empirical perspective. While we have obvious appreciation for the empiricism represented in this book, we also recognize an important question it raises: Can one develop an adequate theory of mysticism from such a narrow empiricism'? We think it would be more than a mistake to think that one could.

The chapters in Parts 1 and 6 of this book are more than suggestive of what amounts to a subtext in this book. Not only do we offer arguments against the claim that mysticism is inherently pathological, we also insist on the relevance of theology in the study of religious experience. After all, theologians take it as part of their task to interpret experience, something that psychologists also do, but often within a more constrained metaphysic. We insist that even empirical studies of mysticism suggest issues of the veridicality of mystical claims that must be incorporated into any theory of mysticism.

Thus, our own modest contributions to the empirical study of mysticism provide but a small piece of a much larger puzzle. If the epilogue focuses on the prospects for a future empirical psychology of religion, perhaps it also suggests a prologue that will link future empirical studies of mysticism to other literatures on mysticism sadly ignorant of one another.

Only when the theological, philosophical and empirical literatures confront one another will an adequate description and theory of mysticism be possible. We began that task suggestively a while back (Hood, 1989b) but its completion remains for a second work on mysticism in progress.

The articles in this book have been modified from the original with minor corrections and deletions where appropriate. No effort has been made to update references because as a set these papers cover nearly 30 years of research.

Mystical Thought of Meister Eckhart: The Man from Whom God Hid Nothing by Bernard McGinn (Crossroad/Herder & Herder) Centuries after his work as a preacher, philosopher, and spiritual guide, Meister Eckhart remains one of the most widely read mystics of the Western tradition. Yet as he has come to be studied more closely in recent decades, a number of different Eckharts have emerged. Is he the prophet of the God known only in radical negation and darkness, or of the intimate God in Christ born in the human soul? Are his evocative German sermons the truest form of his mystical vision, or do we find the key to his vision in the more scholastic, seemingly drier Latin works? For the first time, Bernard McGinn, the greatest living scholar of Western Christian mysticism, brings together in one volume the fruition of decades of reflection on these questions, offering a view of Eckhart that unites his strands as preacher, philosopher, and theologian.

Mystical Thought of Meistwer Eckhart is a fresh and indepth interpretation of Eckhart's mysticism written by the one of the leading American authorities on the preacher. Mystical Thought of Meistwer Eckhart  developed from his major history of Western Christian mysticism but this volume provides some rethinking about Eckhart and trends in the study of his work that will surley set  a based for Eckhart studies in English for years to come. It is scholarly, but readable but I would not recommend it  as an introductory study though once familiar with the main outlines of Eckhart the Mystical Thought of Meistwer Eckhart should be ignored because it provides important analysis into centeral issues of his thought that tends to acceuate the best in Eckhart studies while contributing clear contexts for understanding him.


Mysticism and Sacred Scripture by Steven T. Katz (Oxford University Press) is the fourth volume in an influential series that presents a basic revaluation of the nature of mysticism. Each provides a collection of solicited papers by noted experts in the study of religion. This new volume will explore how the great mystics and mystical traditions use, interpret, and reconstruct the sacred scriptures of their traditions.

Mysticism and Sacred Scripture is the fourth volume in an influential series that presents a basic revaluation of the nature of mysticism. Offering contributions from noted experts in the study of religion, this new collection of original essays examines the complex relationship between mystical experience and the study and exegesis of scriptural traditions. It aims to contextualize mystical experience vis a vis the great canonical scriptural traditions of the world's religions and to reveal the intimate dialectic that exists between the two. It also explores how mystics across the world's religious traditions explicate and reconceive the meaning of scriptural resources.

In exploring the relationship between mysticism and scripture, the essays gathered here focus on a broad range of themes. Individual essays by Steven Katz and Shlomo Biderman consider theological, philosophical, and hermeneutical issues raised by the relationship between mysticism and scripture; Moshe Idel and Michael Fishbane each offer essays on Jewish Kabbalistic materials; Ewert Cousins provides an in-depth look at medieval Christian sources; individual essays by Arvind Sharma, Barbara Holdredge, and Daniel Gold explore the richness of Hindu texts; Ninian Smart examines the topic of mysticism in Theravada Buddhism; Livia Kohn looks at mystical adaptations of Taoist classics; and peter Awn and William Chittick offer analyses of Sufi materials. The original and deeply learned work in this collection opens up a vast array of historical, theological, exegetical, and hermeneutical matters and sheds new light on nearly all aspects of mysticism as a lived religious phenomenon. Offering the most current and in-depth analysis of this important topic, Mysticism and Sacred Scripture is a vital resource for scholars and students of religion, philosophy, and literature.


Mysticism and Sacred Scripture, dealing with the essential, though often neglected, link between mysticism, mystical experience, and sacred scripture, is the latest result of an ongoing reconsideration of the nature of mysticism and mystical experience in its generality and totality. In 1978, with the collected essays published under the title Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, a basic reevaluation of the nature of mysticism was started, and a new paradigm for its decipherment was proposed. This paradigm, which is most simply described as "contextualist," repudiated the older "essentialist" model, which argued that (a) mystical experience was essentially independent of the sociocultural, historical, and religious context in which it occurred and (b) all mystical experience, at its highest and purest level, was essentially the same. In its methodological and epistemological emphasis on context, this alternative model was intended, as I described it in 1978, to indicate that in order to understand mysticism it is not just a question of studying the reports of the mystic after the experiential event but of acknowledging that the experience itself as well as the form in which it is reported is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to, and which shape, his experience. To flesh this out, straightforwardly, what is being argued is that, for example, the Hindu mystic does not have an experience of X which he then describes in the, to him, familiar language and symbols of Hinduism, but rather he has a Hindu experience, i.e., his experience is not an unmediated experience of X but is itself the, at least partially, pre-formed anticipated Hindu experience of Brahman. Again, the Christian mystic does not experience some unidentified reality, which he then conveniently labels God, but rather has the at least partially prefigured Christian experiences of God, or Jesus, or the like. Moreover, as one might have anticipated, it is my view based on what evidence there is, that the Hindu experience of Brahman and the Christian experience of God are not the same. We shall support this contention below. The significance of these considerations is that the forms of consciousness which the mystic brings to experience set structured and limiting parameters on what the experience will be, i.e., on what will be experienced, and rule out in advance what is "inexperienceable" in the particular given, concrete, context?

To begin to develop and extend the myriad implications of this epistemological argument, a second group of original essays was collected and published in 1983 under the title Mysticism and Religious Traditions. There the emphasis was primarily on the way in which mystics emerge out of the larger religious community of which they are a part and how, in turn, they relate to this original community-that is, how they influence it and, in turn, are influenced by it in a fluid and ongoing dialectic. The following issues were considered: the role of teachers and gurus; the nature of discipleship; the character of religious and, in a more narrow sense, mystical communities; questions related to the passing on and reworking of oral and textual traditions; the nature and functions of meditation; the influence of personal "models" in religious and mystical communities; the role of worldviews and ontologies in mystical teachings and experiences; the investigation of the relationship between mysticism and morality; and the relationship of religious dogma to mystical teaching and experience, among other subjects. Given the general neglect of the historical and sociological dimensions of mystical data and instruction-a neglect due largely to the mistaken epistemological paradigm that asserts that mystics transcend their cultures, social settings, and historical contexts-this second set of essays made an important contribution, the impact of which is becoming clear in the scholarship that has appeared since 1983.

From the outset of this larger project of reconceptualization it was compellingly evident that the unavoidable issues of religious language, of how language works or fails to work in mystical contexts and experience, needed to be reexamined. In fact, this central topic had already received extensive attention in the essays published in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis and in Mysticism and Religious Traditions. Yet the analysis of the diverse roles of language in mystical contexts, and the ramifications as studied in these first two collections, only reinforced an awareness that this subject was so crucial to the entire conversation that it required a deeper, closer, more extended consideration. In consequence, a third collection of new essays was commissioned and published in 1992 under the title Mysticism and Language. The contributors to this set of essays, a number of whom had participated in the first two collections, provided valuable and learned reflections on a very wide range of matters that bear upon the analysis of the roles of language in mystical settings. These included the role of canonical texts as linguistic creations in mystical education and experience; the transformational character of language in mystical contexts, as is intended, for example, in a Zen koan or in a Hindu mantra; the propositional and referential employment of words in mystical teachings and writings; the nature and function of dhikr ("recollection" of the Divine names) in Sufism; the role of alphabets and lexicons based on a belief in the special sacredness of specific languages, for example, Hebrew for kabbalists, Arabic for Muslims, Sanskrit for Hindus; the idea of language as power; the magical and theurgical use of words; the talismanic conception of language-for example, letters as vessels that could capture the divine influx into the world; the language of prayer and the use of prayer as the vehicle of mystical ascent; philosophical reflections on the literal and nonliteral nature of mystical reports; the role of language in phenomenological cross-cultural comparisons; and many different sorts of reflections on and analyses of what the notion of "ineffability" means in diverse mystical contexts. Indeed, in their richness and diversity the contributions to this volume more than confirm its initiating premise: the study of mysticism and the study of language cannot be separated.

These investigations of mystical language also made it still more evident that not only did mystics inescapably employ language in a host of remarkable and essential ways but also their language and the ways in which they used it were inseparably related to the world's major religious scriptures and their interpretation. The teachings of Jewish mysticism and of individual kabbalists were unintelligible outside of the Tanach and later rabbinical commentaries thereon; Christian mystics drew deeply from and were fundamentally shaped by the new Testament story and its many forms of reading and rereading; Sufism was a Qur'an-intoxicated mystical form; Hindu teachers and teachings were incomprehensible apart from the Vedas and Bhagavad Gita; and even in Buddhism scripture played an important role. This being so, that is, given the richness of this internal dialogue among mystics, mystical traditions, and canonical scriptures-and recognizing that these repercussive connections had been little studied-it was felt that a symposium dedicated to this subject would be both timely and appropriate. Hence the present collection of essays.

Here I should repeat, in a slightly emended form, what I wrote in my editor's introduction to one of the earlier collections: in the essays prepared for this collection, the issues have been analyzed with a particularly acute methodological acumen. All the contributors have recognized and helped us recognize that to approach these substantive and theoretical matters properly, one must know a good deal about specific religious traditions and communities, as well as about particular mystical authors and groups. Without such knowledge one might generate theories that are ingenious, but scarcely related to the evidence and therefore flimsy when subjected to serious technical analysis. Many of the best-known accounts of mysticism are indeed the product of a priori metaphysical and theological requirements, and not the result of any close encounter with the mystical sources of the world's religions. Such presentations, whatever their appearance, are independent of the data and brook no contradiction. They are proclaimed to be "true" no matter what the details of scholarly research reveal. Rejecting this dogmatic approach as out of place in the serious academic study of mysticism, the contributors to this volume have attempted, on the contrary, to fully engage the texts and traditions of the world's religious and mystical communities. Moreover, and especially, our contributors offer the results of their work as, at least in theory, possibly discomfirmable-that is, they are open to scrutiny and scholarly discussion: they argue from the texts and traditions and allow others to consider these same materials and to respond. There is no wish to offer new dogmas in place of the old.

THE MYSTICISM OF THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING by William Johnston. ($17.00, paper, xxii, 285 pages, Fordham University Press, 0-8232-2075-3) (Paperback)

The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous fourteenth-century mystical treatise. Because of the nature of its teaching, and its relationship to neo-Platonism, the work was regarded with suspicion for many years. It is a much favored spiritual classic that provides practical insights into contemplative simplicity or the via negativia. The best contemporary edition is in The Classics of Western Spirituality edition: Cloud of Unknowing. The classic is also available in the original Middle English version, The Cloud of Unknowing and in a 1912 translation by the great British author of Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, Cloud of Unknowing. Johnston, an Irish Jesuit living and working in Japan, originally wrote THE MYSTICISM OF THE CLOUD OF UNKNOWING as a doctoral dissertation in the 1960s, after having come across an edition (now out of print) of The Cloud by Augustine Baker, a Benedictine spiritual writer. The present volume is a reprint of the 1967 published version of that dissertation, and retains the original forward by Thomas Merton.

Johnston is a specialist in mysticism, both eastern and western, and so he brings to his study of The Cloud a perspective that other writes lack. In fact, Johnston's main argument is that mysticism is not all of a piece, despite the fact that most mystics tend to use similar language. Johnston does not deny the possibility, or even the value, of eastern mysticism. But he does argue that the mysticism of The Cloud needs to be seen in the context of western Christianity, and in particular the Christianity of the fourteenth century.  

What Johnston offers is a thorough historical and theological commentary on The Cloud, as well as an introduction to the via negativia theological tradition that gave it birth. The anonymous author shares the century with Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, and Walter Hilton in England; Meister Eckhart, John Tauler and Henry Suso in Germany; Jan Ruysbroeck in Flanders; and Jacopone da Todi and Catherine of Siena in Italy.  Johnston also notes similarities to the later teachings of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross. 

Johnston argues against earlier interpreters of the work that see it as anti-dogmatic, as rebelling against the traditions of the Church, and he compellingly argues for seeing The Cloud as very much in the tradition of the Church, and so needing to be read that way in order to be fully appreciated.  He sees the object of the author's mysticism as the Trinity, and this is one of the things that distinguishes it from other forms of mysticism.

Johnston also sees the work not as a rejection of rationality, in the way that Zen koans--such as  "Who is the Buddha? Three chins of flax"--are meant to move the mystic away from rational thought, but rather as a step beyond rational thinking, but still grounded in that thinking. Johnston notes that, rather than being preceded by a koan-like meditation, the mysticism of The Cloud is preceded by a meditation on the passion of Christ.

Johnston sums up his argument this way: "In short, the mysticism of the author of The Cloud is ordinary; it is no more than a normal development of the Christian life; it is a path to perfection for those who believe more strongly, love more deeply, and are consequently more highly endowed with a rich outpouring of the gift of wisdom."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: William Johnston is an Irish Jesuit who has lived in Japan for over forty years, and has written extensively on mysticism. His translation of The Cloud and one of the other works of this anonymous author, The Book of Privy Counseling, is available as an Image paperback. He has also written on the relationship between Zen and Christianity in his work, Christian Zen.

Preface to the Fordham Edition
Foreword by Thomas Merton
Preface to the Second Edition

Part I
The Problem of Unknowing
The Cloud of Forgetting
The Cloud of Unknowing
The Cloud and Christ
The Cloud and the Church

Part II
The Blind Stirring
The Blind Stirring and Perfection
Knowledge and Love (I)
Knowledge and Love (II)
Conclusion: "High Ghostly Wisdom"

Part III
Necessity of Purification
The Path of Purification

Part IV
The Summit
God and Creature
 The Divinization of Man
The Spiritual Marriage
General Conclusion
Appendix: Horizontal and Vertical Thinking

Living Without a Sense of Personal Self

COLLISION WITH THE INFINITE: A Life Beyond the Personal Self by Suzanne Segal ($14.00, paperback, 174 pages, Blue Dove Press; ISBN: 1884997279)

This memoir offers some insight on how one might interiorly feel about having no sense of personal self or ego. This near legendary state of some advanced contemplatives is here given an autobiographical setting. It is important for its hints of psychological insights but even more revealing as an historic document that shows how difficult such states are in the context of current spiritual culture. This an extraordinary account of the experience of selflessness points to the heart of spiritual experience that is fully gifted and not an achievement of practice as self-control.

The simplicity of the narrative and its reasonable honesty provides an illuminating account of one woman's experience of loss of personal identity and constant sense of Emptiness. Her eventual discovery, after much fear and pain, the emptiness become a calm entrance to unity and peace.  Segal's opinions in COLLISION WITH THE INFINITE will also poke holes in the work-ethic of Buddhist practice and other forms of spiritual go-gettering. Highly recommended.

A Contemplative Life Inventing Beauty from Truth

WOUNDED PROPHET: A Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen by Michael Ford ($23.95, hardcover, 256 pages, Doubleday; ISBN: 038549372X)

Henri Nouwen's devotional writings are effective because their revealing, personal voice invites readers to share an effortless intimacy with him. This literary intimacy, in turn, helps many readers achieve greater closeness with others and with God. Michael Ford's biography of Nouwen, WOUNDED PROPHET, draws on interviews with Nouwen's colleagues and close friends who describe Nouwen, predictably, as the generous and loving man readers have met through Nouwen's books. Yet Ford's biography also contains some striking surprises about the extreme loneliness and anxiety that plagued Nouwen throughout his life. WOUNDED PROPHET is especially insightful regarding the connections between Nouwen's homosexuality, which he grappled with in earnest during the last years of his life, and his theology, which became increasingly grounded in the life of the senses during that same period. It is a major concern that nearly a majority of monastics are in some degree homosexual. Given the position of the Church on acting out these urges this life shows how one contemplative addressed his embodiment while managing his vows of celibacy. Ford has a clear understanding of and deep compassion for his subject, whose vocation he summarizes beautifully near the end of the book: "Like many mystics, Henri Nouwen was in tune with the energy of divine life, passionate about Jesus, and committed to speaking words of hope from his own mysterious anguish. It was a vocation for connecting the spiritual with the earthbound." His refreshing voice will be missed and this account of his personal life provides important links to his pious prose. Recommended.

Major Scholastic Mystic's Central Spiritual Writings Now Available in a Modern Translation

NICHOLAS OF CUSA: Selected Spiritual Writings translated and introduction by H. Lawrence Bond, preface by Morimichi Watanabe ($24.95, paper, 362 pages, notes, bibliography, indexes The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press, ISBN: 0-8091-3698-8)

"This cloud, mist, darkness, or ignorance into which whoever seeks your face enters when one leaps beyond every knowledge and concept is such that below it your face cannot be found except veiled. But this very cloud reveals your face to be there beyond all veils .… The denser, therefore, one knows the cloud to be the more one truly attains the invisible light in the cloud. I see, Oh Lord, that it is only in this way that the inaccessible light, the beauty, and the splendor of your face can be approached without veil." From De visione Dei, c. 6

Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) is often called the outstanding intellectual figure of the fifteenth century as well as the principal gatekeeper between medieval and modern philosophy. This volume gives fresh attention to the theological and mystical dimensions of his thought. The introduction casts new and exciting light on the development of Cusa’s theology of spirituality. The book also provides for the first time in one volume an English translation of Cusa’s basic mystical corpus: On Learned Ignorance; On the Hidden God; On Seeking God; On the Vision of God; and On the Summit of Contemplation. Another unique feature is the annotated glossary of key Cusan terms that accompanies the texts.

Cusa’s writings reveal a remarkably imaginative and gifted theologian who anticipated contemporary questions of ecumenicity and pluralism, empowerment and reconciliation, and tolerance and individuality. These translations particularly communicate to us his experience of a very large God that jostles us out of our parochialism.

For all his intellectual power, he never closes his thought into a system. He is a significator and a conjecturer. He keeps pointing beyond his own words and beyond even his prized formulae and labels, including "learned ignorance" and "coincidence of opposites." He persistently brings theology to the edge of incomprehensibility, beyond both positive and negative ways, beyond even paradox and the coincidence of opposites, to the realm of the Purely Absolute and Infinite, to the contemplation of Possibility Itself.

For the best general introduction to scholastic thought see the solidly researched and well-written collection MEDIEVAL PHILOSOPHY FROM ST. AUGUSTINE TO NICHOLAS OF CUSA by John F Wippel (Editor), Allan B. Wolter ($16.95, paperback, 487 pages, Free Press, ISBN: 0029356504)

A Shift in Philosophical Fashion

THE INNATE CAPACITY: Mysticism, Psychology, and Philosophy edited by Robert K. C. Forman ($45.00; Hardcover; Oxford Univ Press ISBN: 0195116976)
This sequel to the well received collection, The Problem of Pure Consciousness ($18,95, paper, $55.00, hardcover; Oxford, 1990), offers a scholarly renewal of the attempt to find universals in mystical experience. The essays in the earlier volume argued that some mystical experiences do not seem to be formed or shaped by the language systema thesis that stands in sharp contradistinction to deconstruction in general and to the "constructivist" school of mysticism in particular, which holds that all mysticism is the product of a cultural and linguistic process. In The Innate Capacity, Forman and his colleagues put forward a hypothesis about the formative causes of these "pure consciousness" experiences. All of the contributors agree that mysticism is the result of an innate human capacity, rather than a learned, socially conditioned and constructive process.

The innate capacity is understood in several different ways. Many perceive it as an expression of human consciousness per se, awareness itself. Some hold that consciousness should be understood as a built-in link to some hidden, transcendent aspect of the world, and that a mystical experience is the experience of that inherent connectedness. Another thesis that appears frequently is that mystics realize this innate capacity through a process of releasing the hold of the ego and the conceptual system. The contributors here look at mystical experience as it is manifested in a variety of religious and cultural settings, including Hindu Yoga, Buddhism, Sufism, and medieval Christianity. Taken together, the essays constitute an important contribution to the ongoing debate about the nature of human consciousness and mystical experience.

Robert K. C. Forman is Associate Professor of Religion at Hunter College, executive editor of The Journal of Consciousness Studies, and Director of the Forge Institute.


Something important is happening in the study of religions and religious experiences that may have reverberations in every field.

For decades, social scientists and scholars of the humanities have been laboring under one dominant model. That model, constructivism, suggests that in one way or another, cultural training, social background, economic circumstance, and one’s beliefs largely shape one’s experiences, feelings, actions, and life. The idea is that, at least in part, we create our own reality. This "constructive" model has been enormously productive, especially in the study of human actions, hopes, and ideas. It has helped us understand a great deal about how people’s behavior, beliefs, and experiences are shaped and conditioned by their backgrounds.

Constructivism has also been helpful when applied to the study of religion and religious experiences.  Just as all experiences are mediated or constructed, champions of this approach suggest, so, too, are mystical experiences. Mystical experiences, like other experiences, are in large part shaped, formed, or built by the concepts, expectations, hopes, and beliefs we bring to them. An extraordinary number and depth of connections exist not only between one’s social situation and religious

In religious studies this notion has been outspokenly applied to mystical experience by several notable scholars: Steven Katz in his essays "Language, Epistemology, and Mystical Experience" in Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis and "The ‘Conservative’ Character of Mystical Experience" in Mysticism and Religious Traditions; Robert Gimello, Ninian Smart, Peter Moore, and the other contributors to Katz’s two books; Wayne Proudfoot in Religious Experience: William Wainwright in Mysticism; and the philosophers represented in Richard Woods’s Understanding Mysticism...

Recently, however, a number of scholars in the humanities and particularly those who study religious experiences have begun to challenge this model. Certain mystical experiences may escape the ordinary constructive processes of language and belief. Sallie King, Donald Evans, Leon Schlamm, as well as my colleagues and I who contributed to The Problem of Pure Consciousness (hardcover, paper, Oxford University Press, 1990) have argued that some experiences notably the silent mystical experience of pure consciousness, do not seem to be shaped or formed by the language system. Through a process akin to forgetting, one may be able to let go of one’s concepts and conceptual baggage and come to an experience that is both nonconceptual and not shaped by concepts and beliefs.

While not duplicating those arguments, this book continues and expands the explorations into this new, nonconstructivist direction. The Problem of Pure Consciousness and articles by other writers have done much of the "destructive" work in exploring this avenue. It is now time, we feel, to attempt the much more difficult constructive academic work of putting forward a new hypothesis about the formative cause(s) of these experiences.

This volume began when several contributors to The Problem of Pure Consciousness suggested, either in their articles or in the correspondence leading to it, that, rather than being the product of a cultural and linguistic learning process, mysticism seems to result from some sort of innate human capacity. The book’s principal questions, then, are: Do mystical experiences arise from a learned, socially conditioned constructive process, or are they the expressions of some sort of innate human capacity? If the latter, what is that capacity? How is it spoken of and understood? How can we make sense of an innate capacity for mysticism? How shall we understand it?

As this book has developed, several distinct but interconnected theses have emerged. First, while mysticism is conceived differently by different contributors, all agree that mysticism is the expression of an innate capacity. This capacity is spoken of and understood differently, however. Many writers conceive of it as an expression of our consciousness, awareness itself. Most who speak of it thus maintain that we should conceive of consciousness as separate from all sensation, perception, and thought and thus separate from the culturally "trainable" aspects of human experience. Some suggest that consciousness should be conceived of as a built-in connecting link to the greater world and that a mystical experience is an experience of that inherent connectedness.

Another frequently appearing thesis is that mystics come to this innate capacity through a process of letting go of the ego and the conceptual system. This is especially clear in William Chittuck’s article on Ibn al’Arabi, the Sufi who teaches that it is but self-centeredness that "conceals the sun" of the innate character of the self that is, God’s own self manifestation within the self. Through the annihilation of the self, and, "abandoning" our egocentricity or giving up our "delimited consciousness," we reveal the innate "sun" within.

Roger Corless suggests something similar: that the Buddhist Lotus Sutra’s procedure leading to the Buddha Nature is one of "deconstruction" the undoing of attachments. The key attachment to be deconstructed is that to Buddhist doctrines and procedures. The text itself, he shows, enables one to let go of the disciple’s attachments to it.

Diane Jonte-Pace’s fascinating study of the Rorschach responses of three spiritual masters makes an unexpected yet valuable contribution to these discussions. All three of her subjects had highly unusual, yet strikingly similar, responses to the tests. Each viewed the test patterns with a surprisingly consistent and cohesive set of responses, using the cards as an integrated teaching tool. The author maintains that their responses, which were not focused on the sensory world, show that they had in deep ways "dismantled" or let go of the ordinary perceptual structures. Her article tends to reinforce both claims: that (a) something cross culturally consistent is being engendered in mysticism and that (b) it is achieved through a process of "letting go."

ONE Introduction: Mystical Consciousness, the Innate Capacity, and the Perennial Philosophy, Robert K. C. Forman
TWO Discriminating the Innate Capacity: Salvation Mysticism of Classical Samkya Yoga, Lloyd W. Pflueger
THREE Parables of Deconstruction in the Lotus Sutra, Roger Corless
FOUR Between the Yes and the No: Ibn al’Arabi on Wujid and the Innate Capacity, William Chittick
FIVE Mysticism, Mediation, and Consciousness: The Innate Capacity in John Ruusbroec, James Robertson Price III
SIX The Innate Capacity: Jung and the Mystical Imperative, John Dourley
SEVEN The Swami and the Rorschach: Spiritual Practice, Religious Experience, and Perception, Diane Jonte-Pace
EIGHT William James and the Origins of Mystical Experience, G. William Barnard
NINE Innate Mystical Capacities and the Nature of the Self, Anthony N. Perovich Jr.
TEN Postconstructivist Approaches to Mysticism, R. L. Franklin

A New Classic of Mystical Wisdom:

RETURNING TO THE SOURCE: The Way to the Experience of God by Wilson Van Dusen ($13.50, paper, 280 pages, Real People Press, Box F. Moab, UT 84532. (801) 259-7578; (801) 259-4042 Fax. ISBN 0-911226-37-0)

paper: $19.00, hardcover, 280 pages, 0-911226-36-2

In this delightful and fresh, exploration of how to experience God in ordinary life, we are introduced in a remarkably direct way to how mystics let ordinary experience transform them and reveal God. Nothing doctrinaire is in this personal memoir written by a lifelong mystic and clinical psychologist who is also one of the best expositors of the mystical teachings of Swedenborg. This work will be highly prized by those who recognize the mystical in everyday life. Like a meaningful prayer or a treasured memory, what is presented here is a gentle reminder of what many of us have forgotten.

"Each time I have edited a section of this book, I have felt nourished, quieted, lightened, cleansed, and refreshed. Whenever I have put these ideas into practice, my life has become easier and more interesting and enjoyable in a quiet and fundamental way. " —Steve Andreas, editor

From the Introduction by Wilson Van Dusen:

This book revolves around a simple observation. Some people find their way into the joys of mystical or transcendent experiences—the direct experience of God. The elements in human experience that can lead into this direct experience of God are relatively common, and are easily available to the agnostic and atheist as well as the believer. I hope to describe the mystical experience until you begin to understand so many aspects of it that you will be able to recognize it and discover it in your own experience. The experience of God is not rare and difficult to obtain. It is our understanding of it that needs great improvement.

I am a lifelong and natural mystic. I have known the direct experience of God countless times. What is it like to be a mystic in this world? In part, it is sad. Mystics can go through a long period in which they have experiences of God, but they remain unsure. Once after I gave a talk in a church, an old woman waited until the crowd of people who came up to me afterward cleared. I saw that she was not long for this world. Acting very circumspectly, she recited a short dream in which a golden sun came to her, and asked if it was God. I first thought of my standard reply, "We need to get into the dream, and to see what is in it." But then I was struck by the total emotional impact of the larger situation. This old woman is dying, and it matters very much to her if she met God even once in this life. I said, "Yes, it was God," and we both broke into tears. But how sad. She had the marks of a very spiritual person, whose life was embedded in God. And yet she asks desperately if once she met Him. To me she represents most of mankind. She is already well on her way, but she does not recognize the signs.

Some people want some thunderbolt out of heaven to knock them down. In my experience such thunderbolts occur, but are rare. Most mystical experience is very direct and simple, like the soft glance of a lover that says it all. U.S. television reflects a culture that craves the big sensation—great explosions and car smashups, and death. If you translate this attitude into the mystical realm we would expect God to do it big, and put on a grand show for us. I once approached God in somewhat this attitude, wanting a Big Sign. By direct knowing, without words, I was led to reflect on the scope of the known universe in all its complexity and immensity, and was asked, "Is this not enough sign?" I felt taken aback. If one is not satisfied with the entire created universe as a sign, then nothing much else will do either! To a Mystic, the opening of a flower is quite enough sign.

One thing that will surprise some readers is that I concentrate on the smallest signs. They can't get too small to notice. God is in all the little, ever-present signs we are missing. All have known this kind of experience, countless times, and yet it is rarely recognized for what it is.

There is a fairly classical mystical experience which I believe every human being on earth has enjoyed at some time: the beauty of nature. You are in a beautiful setting, perhaps with a sunset. You are relaxed and simply taking in all the natural beauty. The mood is one of patience and a relaxed perception of what is there. You suddenly and unaccountably feel as though you are a part of the immense, living, creative life before you. There is just awesome wonder in which you are immersed and a part of it all. There is peace and harmony, and the experience feels therapeutic, as though balance is restored. You may have little sense of time passing, or how long you were in awe.

There are even smaller experiences which are like the rapture of nature, but they are so little they are often not recognized. Often they seem like a brief pleasantness, in which we just feel in harmony with our situation, feeling like a temple of respite in the midst of our day-to-day experience. It is a mild joy, another element that runs through all mystical experience. It is for me the greatest pleasure. In no way does the experience divide—either person against person, or even person against creation. It always unites into a harmonious whole. These experiences restore sanity and balance. I had so many, and was so intrigued by them, that by adolescence I had worked out the way back to them.

We will begin with a first look at the mystical to orient you to the realm. Then I will deal with different aspects of the mystical, beginning with mystery and awe. In describing each aspect I will be attempting to point out the little shift in viewpoint that leads into the experience of God. I stress little shift, for none of these shifts are difficult or abstruse. It is as though we are walking around a gem and I am attempting to describe each facet. Of course the gem is all the facets combined, but taking them one at a time we break the "all at once" into simpler components for the sake of understanding. People differ, so a given person may be reached better by one facet than another. Each facet is, in effect, a way into the mystical experience, and practiced mystics use several of these facets.

The direct experience of God is everyone's potential. My method is the direct description of human experience without theory. This is essentially a project lying in both human psychology and religion. Fortunately all the paths to this transcendent experience are handy, in ourselves, not in some remote and arcane mystery to be solved. We are working in the very human foundations of religious experience, quite below the level of cultural and religious doctrinal differences and disputes. The One sought is fortunately common to us all, and seeks us all.

In this I cannot promise the direct experience of God. That can only be given by God. But there is work we can do to clear away the rubbish of our misunderstandings to prepare to meet the One common to us all.

MYSTICISM: Experience, Response, and Empowerment
by Jess Byron Hollenback ($85.00, cloth, $25.00, paper; 646 pages; notes, bibliography, index; The Pennsylvania State University Press, ISBN 0-271-01552-7
Hollenback's Mysticism should replace religious studies classics such as William James's Varieties of Religious Experience and Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism.
Hollenback's Mysticism: Experience, Response, and Empowerment may seem a bit verbose and a slight progress over Evelyn Underhill's great classic work of the same name, but it is the best general statement of what mysticism as a segment in the studies of religion has become.

He begins by affirming a reserved version of the constructionist thesis (that he prefers, following Stephen Katz, to call a "contextualist" thesis). Simply put the contextualists place emphasis upon the religious culture as determining to large degree the core of mystical experience. It is contrasted with positions that claim a naturalistic essence to mystical experience per se and seek a transcultural core in the universal insights of the mystics as essentially similar. Even with his qualified constructionist views, Hollenback still seeks to recognize structures or patterns of mystical experience and a basic type of mechanism, discipline, or technique that is widely if not universally involved in mystical experience.

The first objective in this study is to introduce mysticism as a broad comparative historical subject that will not only be of interest to the scholar but also remains easily accessible to the generalist. The historical nature of mysticism is especially stressed in this study. Hollenback argues against implicit notion of an essentialist mystical experience, that it is "impossible to isolate the content of a mystical experience from its religious and cultural matrix."

His second objective is to emphasize the universality of the mental exercises of recollection, that is the "one-pointed concentration of mental and emotional attention" at the base of both mystical states of consciousness and psychic phenomena that often occurs in tandem with them. He also demonstrates how the need to preserve this state of consciousness plays a decisive role in the way the mystic interplays with the world, religious identity formation and the interpretive nexus of the experience.

Hollenback's third objective is the more original aspects of this study. He attempts to draw attention to the significance of enthymesis, or what he has "termed the 'empowerment' of thought, will, and imagination as a significant process that shapes visionary landscapes, ensures that a mystic's experiences will seem to confirm empirically the truths that his religious tradition proclaims in its myths or scriptures, and transforms the imagination and will into 'organs' of supernormal perception. ('Empowerment,' or 'enthymesis,' as used in this work, refers to that peculiar simultaneity between thinking and being that often operates during mystical experiences. Under conditions of enthymesis, visionary landscapes and spiritual environments behave as though they are constructed out of the mystic's thoughts or desires.)" This perspective returns the paranormal to the center of mystical study where it has been set aside by many except practicing mystics where these phenomena occur. His resurrection of the imagination as a source of valid knowing and ontological intervention through empowerment, though following Henry Corbin here a bit uncritically is the centerpiece of this magnificent study's novelty.

Hollenback's attempt "to make this study a broad cross-cultural treatment of mysticism." does not quiet work. Part of it may be is implicit sexism, inexcusable in a work today, but also in not having the necessary conceptual or critical data available or an adequate rhetorical construct. Though he did not restrict this examination entirely to those mystics who assert devotion within one of the dominant world religions, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. His attempt to include the mysticisms of such preliterate peoples as the Lakota, the Australian Aborigines, and the Eskimo can at best be seen as a valiant effort, rather than an adroit integration. Also Hollenback suffers from not appreciating in enough variety the mystical tradition of the great traditions in all their historical particularity. In many ways he makes characterizations that are just too simple to fit the complex phenomenology of religious experience. In general this work is an exceptional synthesis of the field of mysticism and belongs on all religious studies reading lists.

The Way of The English Mystics: An Anthology and Guide for Pilgrims by Gordon L. Miller ($15.95, paper, 189 pages
Morehouse Publishing, P.O. Box 1321, Harrisburg, PA 17105, Credit card orders: 1-800-877-0012 (USA); ISBN 0-8192-1675-5)

devotional anthology

The Way of The English Mystics introduces seven of British mystics, along with vital excerpts from their writings. The volume also provides maps and drawings of the sites associated with the mystics to encourage pilgrimage. Five of them are from the medieval period or golden age of mysticism: Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Two others come from seventeenth century: William Law and the favorite metaphysical poet, George Herbert.
"The revival of interest in various forms of meditation and mysticism in recent decades is evidence that many people are searching for a deeper level of meaning or experience, for a more authentic and integrated way of feeling their existence," writes Gordon Miller. "In cultivating a sense of the sacred, the essential and perennial human task is the preparation of a fertile inner field of stillness and spaciousness, so that the holy can take hold and bear fruit."
After offering us these mystics and their writings--most of which are in recent, approachable translations--the author encourages readers to visit the places where they lived in England.
"Visiting the haunts of the English mystics," according to Miller, "can help one to situate their ageless message in time and place and can strengthen one's awareness of, and sense of identification with, this rich Christian tradition." Gordon L. Miller is a doctor of philosophy who lives and works in Mercer Island, Washington. He holds a Master's degree from Christian Theological Seminary. This anthology serves well as an inexpensive guide to these central English mystics. The selections are short but well introduced and provocative.

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