The word mystic does not bring to mind edifying images for most Christians these days. It smacks of a vapid, Southern California mindset, readily exploited by marketers of tea and juice and such. For the more historically minded, mystic might suggest the wild-haired, unwashed visionaries off in the wilderness—not, in other words, something of much concern to everyday believers as they balance their finances or play catch with their kids.
But true mystics are far from amorphously spiritual. As Bernard McGinn has put it, “no mystic (at least before the present century) believed in or practiced ‘mysticism.’ They believed in and practiced Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism), that is, religions that contained mystical elements as part of a wider historical whole.” McGinn’s work serves as the starting point for William Harmless, a professor of theology at Creighton University, whose new book Mystics is a walk through the lives and teachings of eight great mystics: Thomas Merton, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, and Evagrius Ponticus from the Christian tradition, as well as the Sufi poet Rumi and the Buddhist divine Dogen.
. . . Harmless says that his goal is “to take up and to take on the widespread claim that ‘all religions are all the same at the top,’ that ‘mystics are all experiencing the same thing.’ … I hope I’ve shown here … that such claims are simply nonsense, that those who make them have simply not done their homework.”
Friday, June 27, 2008
Is mysticism the way to pluralism?
Not according to William Harmless in his new book, Mystics, reviewed in Books & Culture by Nathaniel Peters: