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Christian Mysticism

Basic Problems Of Christian Mysticism, History Of Christian Mysticism, Bibliography

Since the Baroque age, the concept of mysticism (first in French, la mystique) has been used to describe religious phenomena that can hardly be restricted to a certain geographical space or a certain epoch. These phenomena are primarily symbolic expressions (in act, speech, literature, art, music, etc.), of persons trying to communicate knowledge that has been gained through mystical experiences.

A commonly accepted definition of "mystical experience" does not exist. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) says that beyond speculation, there is an experimental cognition (cognitio experimentalis) of the divine, "thereby a man experiences in himself the taste of God's sweetness, and complacency in God's will" (Summa theologiae II/II q.97, a.2, re2). In order to include forms of mysticism that reject the notion of a personal god, one could more generally speak of immediate experiences of divine presence. For an additional clarification of the concept it is still useful to consider the four characteristics of the "mystical state of consciousness" as provided by William James (pp. 294–296):

  1. Ineffability: The paramount experiences exceed the intellect, defy verbal expression, and can therefore not be imparted or transferred to others.
  2. Noetic quality: Mystical experiences are not mere feelings but also insights and participations in a nonintellectual and nondiscursive knowledge.
  3. Passivity: Although the mystic may actively prepare body and mind, the actual experience is rather one of being grasped and held by a superior power.
  4. Transiency: Mystical experiences are limited in time and can only imperfectly be reproduced by memory. This last characteristic, however, has been questioned by more recent scholarship, since there are sources that speak of permanent mystical states.

The symbolic expressions as well as the modes of mystical experience are, to a certain degree, predetermined by their social, religious, and intellectual environment. This observation, however, does not contradict the assumption that there is a "numinous" dimension of reality from which all mystical experiences originate. Accounts of mystical states of consciousness occur in every religion, philosophy, and doctrine of wisdom, involving a dimension of divine eternity, which on the one hand transcends the sphere of temporal beings and sense perceptions and, on the other hand, is the ground and source of all being. Besides this ontological presupposition an anthropological one is required. Mystics claim that a feature of human nature—most often identified as the "soul" or its highest parts—is divine or can assume a divine form. Therefore, it can free itself from the bodily and temporal sphere of existence in order to enter the transcendent realm of the divine.

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