The Making of Modern “Mysticism”
Leigh Eric Schmidt
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Mysticism, as a category long prominent in the study of religion, has been widely critiqued over the last quarter century for its essentialist illusions. That critical literature, while based on historicist convictions, has rarely extended such historical vision to the liberal religious culture that produced the modern construct. This article bridges the vast gap between Michel de Certeau's genealogy of “mysticism” focused on seventeenth‐century France and the accounts of those scholars who focus on the boom of academic studies at the turn of the twentieth century. It presents the emergence of “mysticism” as a category in Anglo‐American discourse from its development during the English Enlightenment within critiques of false religion to its Romantic remaking within Transcendentalist Unitarian circles in the United States. In taking seriously the religious and intellectual worlds that produced William James's theorizing, the article opens wider perspectives on why the construct came to carry so much weight in both the study and the practice of religion.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. ‘The Making of Modern “Mysticism”’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 71.2 (June 2003): 273–302.
On closer inspection, then, the argument that the modern categories of “religious experience” and “mysticism” were expressly aimed at puri fying spirituality of the ostensible contaminants of political enmeshments and power relations does not hold up very well. Fuller heralded the emancipatory potential of mysticism for women; James sang the praises of saintly charity as a transformative social force; and Jones tirelessly in sisted on the practical social implications of a revived mysticism,
Conyers Middleton, who first employed the term mysticism as part of a sustained critique of sectarian fanaticism. In a series of dialogues entitled Philemon to Hydaspes: Or, The History o f False Religion, the initial installment of which appeared in 1736, Coventry explicitly contrasted “the seraphic entertainments of mysticism and extasy” with the “true spirit of accept able religion” (56, 60). By the latter, he meant a liberal and reasonable commitment to civic virtue, tolerant
formative influence on erotic theorizing. Among eighteenth-century writers Ellis (1: 312-313) looked to Swift, not Coventry, for inspiration, another example of Coventry’s dis placement, even among those who would have had considerable appreciation for his views. 280 Journal o f the American Academy o f Religion course provided the basis for the construal of the mystics as a particular sect of Christians, a definable group of pious (if misguided) souls. The modern mystics, though sometimes
mysticism was necessarily intended to be part of those debates, not to float free above the fray. “Never was there an age,” one anonymous essayist insisted in 1878, “when what is true in Mysticism needed emphatic assertion more than it does to-day. The general drift of thought is antagonistic to the spiritual and the eter nal. Science, and by this word is generally understood the material and economic province, absorbs in itself all thought and investigation” (Meth odist Quarterly Review: 412).
wrote of mysti cism in 1874 as having “to do with wholes,” with the common and the unifying (23). “The word mysticism, whenever properly used,” he said, “refers to the fact that all lives, however distinct they may appear, how ever varied may be their conditions and their ends, are at heart one” (8). For Everett, no more sublime exemplar of this “mystical view of life” could be adduced than “our martyred president, Abraham Lincoln,” a truly “ten der and heroic soul” who stood for the universal