Definitions of Mysticism


Mysticism: Belief in union with the divine nature by means of ecstatic contemplation, and belief in the power of spiritual access to ultimate reality, or to domains of knowledge closed off to ordinary thought. Also applied derogatorily to theories that assume occult qualities or agencies of which no empirical or rational account can be offered.

--The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

Mysticism: The difficulties encountered in attempting to define mysticism are well known. Dean Inge, in his Mysticism in Religion, quotes no fewer than twenty-six different definitions of mysticism to which he adds others. All of these refer to religious experience, more specifically to communion with God, of an intense and direct nature. Jewish mysticism can be defined, therefore, as that aspect of Jewish religious experience in which the mind encounters God directly. -- A Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion.

Word Derivation: < classical Latin myst{emac}s or its etymon ancient Greek {mu}{guacu}{sigma}{tau}{eta}{fsigma} initiate < the base of {mu}{guacu}{epsilon}{iota}{nu} to close (the lips or eyes: see MYSTERY n.

The concept of mysticism is closely related to that of religious experience, but probably they should not be thought to be identical. It seems useful to distinguish mystical experience from numinous experience of the sort described by Rudolf Otto , and from the more ‘ordinary’ sort of experience of the presence and activity of God , which is well illustrated by John Baillie . William James characterized mystical experience by four marks: transiency, passivity, noetic quality, and ineffability. Perhaps we should add a fifth, that mystical experiences often, perhaps characteristically, involve what is now called an ‘altered state of consciousness’—trance, visions, suppression of cognitive contact with the ordinary world, loss of the usual distinction between subject and object, weakening or loss of the sense of the self, etc. These features constitute an interesting ‘syndrome’. Not all religious experience is mystical and not every mystical experience includes all of the features of this syndrome, but there is a large body of individual testimonies and descriptions derived from all the major religious traditions (and perhaps from minor traditions also) which involve many of these features.

Much of this mystical experience is taken to be religiously significant by the subject, but there is an interesting and difficult question about whether all mysticism is inherently religious, with some (e.g. William Stace ) suggesting that it need not be. Some mystical experience is overtly theistic, having an ostensible reference to God, roughly as he is conceived in the theistic religions. And it is dualistic, in the sense of retaining the distinction between the mystic and the God who is ostensibly experienced. St Teresa of Avila , a Spanish Catholic of the sixteenth century, is a good example of such a mystic. Other mystics, however, even within the Catholic tradition, tend towards monism, emphasizing the unity of all things and the lack of real distinctions, even between the mystic and the divine reality. Mysticism of the theistic, dualistic sort seems to generate no particular difficulty for Christian metaphysics, and indeed often includes specifically Christian elements, such as visions of Christ. Strongly monistic mysticism, however, is harder to square with a Christian view, and when such mystics have themselves been Christians they have often been suspected of heresy. This sort of mysticism is likely to find a more comfortable religious home in the great non-theistic religions.

For in those experiences the subject is strongly convinced that he or she is acquiring a piece of knowledge, a sort of revelation, in the course of the experience itself. Such subjects may well take that element of their experience at face value. Indeed, they may find that the convictions which are thus generated are among the very strongest in their entire intellectual life (for example, St Teresa). This way of assessing the significance of mysticism is, however, not readily accessible to non-mystics. Normally these powerful convictions are generated by the experience itself, in those who have had that experience, and not in others who have only the reports of such experiences. In James's terminology, mystical experience is ‘authoritative’ for those who have it, but not for others. -- Prof. George I. Mavrodes


Implicit in all of these questions is an agenda of power. The fascination of the subject of mysticism is not, I suggest, simply a fascination with intense psychological experiences for their own sake,but rather because the answers to these questions are also ways of defining or delimiting authority. . . a person who was acknowledged to have direct access to God would be in a position to challenge any form of authority, whether doctrinal or political, which she saw as incompatible with divine will. It is obvious, too, that defining mysticism is a way of defining power whether institutional or individual. -- Grace Jantzen