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A Theory About Different Types of Mysticism

by Carson T. Clark on September 18, 2012

I’ve got a theory developing that the trouble with mysticism as a concept is the largely unrecognized diversity of spirituality types it encompasses. From what I can tell, and I say this tentatively, the twin characteristics unifying them all are an overt spirituality and this deep, intense feeling of longing for God and the transcendent. Where the diversity comes in is the mystic’s use of the rational mind. Before jumping in, however, I’d like to emphasize that this is a developing theory. Obviously I invite critical feedback from readers who either fundamentally disagree or think I’ve not nuanced things enough, but don’t get your panties in a bunch about it. Once again, this theory is in a primitive stage.11.Please respond accordingly.

Psychologist David G. Benner has suggested mysticism isn’t, as many suppose, primarily about existential experiences. Likewise, he says mysticism isn’t non-rational or anti-rational. Rather, mysticism is about knowing God in love and is trans-rational in nature. If I may be so bold, the trouble with this assertion is two-fold. First, the plain reality is that I’ve known many, many mystical Christians who definitively are irrational, non-rational, or anti-rational. Second, it seems to me Benner is attributing characteristic descriptions to the whole from characteristic descriptions of one part—albeit likely the majority part.22.Also, I cannot help but think Benner, being an intelligent and thoughtful psychologist, is projecting his own particular expression onto mysticism in its entirety.

Benner’s view got me thinking. My working theory is that there are actually seven distinct, but not necessarily mutually exclusive, types of mysticism:

  • Irrational. An overt, longing spirituality that’s strangely and utterly divorced from rational thought.
  • Anti-rational. An overt, longing spirituality that downplays, dismisses, and denigrates rational thought.
  • Non-rational. An overt longing spirituality that’s ambivalent toward or apathetic about rational thought.
  • Trans-rational. An overt, longing spirituality that utilizes rational thought in a superseding, largely emotional and primarily intuitive sense.
  • Pre-rational. An overt, longing spirituality that loves rational thought but usually takes time to unpack it.
  • Squarely-rational. An overt, longing spirituality that emanates from and produces rational thought.
  • Selectively-rational. An overt, longing spirituality that almost seems to haphazardly fluctuate in and out of rational thought for different occasions.

I’ve spent time in a lot of christian traditions ranging from my adolescent Pentecostalism to my present Anglicanism. There have been mystical persons at each stop along the way. Among those persons I’ve met individuals who fit each and every one of the above mysticism types.33.Moreover, I’ve directly read or read about persons in church history manifesting each of these types. As you might have guessed, I primarily reflect pre-rational and squarely-rational mysticism. For the longest time I felt discontent and guilty for not being spiritual enough, which caused me to continually alternate between passionate denials of being mystical and neurotic efforts to contort myself into the trans-rational mysticism Benner has in view. It has only been in the past several months that I’ve come to see the possible existence of what I’d been half-jokingly describing as intellectual mysticism.

  • Seretha

    Have you read The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto–who is something of the father of experiential-expressivism of the ilk of Mircea Eliade (seminal professor of history of religion) has a theory of mystical experience, and why there is both Christian and non-Christian forms of mysticism? I find it persuasive, but certainly there are multiple opinions on the matter.

    • Carson T. Clark

      Nope. I’m not read Otto.

  • JCW West

    Have you read Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill? I think she is overly impressed by Islamic and other non-western mystics (writing in the 1930’s or 40’s) but would give you a broader background. Also the literature of western mysticism: Autobio of St. Terese of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Mother Julian, The Cound of Unknowing, et al.

  • Hermit of Bardstown

    Read the Underhill.

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