Mysticism’s morass

What I hope I have shown by this brief survey of what has come to be known as the Christian mystical tradition, starting from the Fathers, and looking at it from the perspective they suggest, is that mysticism is not some settled concept, with a clear definition; rather it is the name for a religious strategy: in origin the name of a particular religious strategy that belongs to early modern Europe (though already under way in late medieval Europe—we cannot now go into the argument as to where the caesura between ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ occurs, though this case is part of the argument for seeing the twelfth century as more decisive than the fifteenth or sixteenth). It is a strategy to which there may well be analogies in the histories of other religions: but we shall not discover that by confining our attention to ‘mystical writings’, we shall need to cast our nets much more widely. Briefly, I would say that something like what is called comparative mysticism may well have a role in comparative religion, but that both of these need to see themselves as part of a much wider attempt to compare different historical cultures: religions cannot be abstracted from the cultures in which they answer people’s social and spiritual needs (that does not mean that religions cannot pass from one culture to another: they evidently can, but we must not suppose that there is some ‘essence’ of religion that can be isolated, which is that which has passed from one culture to another—the situation is much more complex than that, and the question of religious identity not so easily solved), nor can ‘mysticism’ be abstracted from the religions that foster deep, prayerful commitment. ‘Comparitive mysticism’ is too easy, and unhistorical: it simply lulls us into thinking that we can regard as fundamentally significant (‘mystical’ has never lost the connotation of what really matters, what is ultimately powerful) what appeals to the individualized consciousness of the West—religious literature that aspires to the form of poetry, devoid of dogmatic content or ritual expression.

Fr Andrew Louth. The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition—New Edition (Oxford, 2007). From the Afterword of 2006, p. 213.