Marcus Borg is a Biblical scholar and best-selling author who sees God as both transcendent and indwelling everything, a perspective called “panentheism.” (Note the second syllable, “en.”) I’ve been a fan for a long time, so when he came to Orlando recently I couldn’t wait to hear him speak, especially about “Mysticism And Why It Matters.” This is not an easy topic to write or talk about, and I was hoping for some pointers. Not only did he provide some, but he handed out summaries of his lectures and encouraged us to borrow liberally from them! In what follows I have done so. Why try to reinvent the wheel?
Borg broadly defines mysticism as being “about union with the sacred. Mystical experiences are ecstatic experiences of God/the sacred/reality/isness.” He notes that ordinary people have been guided and nurtured by these experiences for centuries. As a result, for them the Sacred Mystery is no longer an article of faith, but an element of experience.
According to William James, author of the classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience, mystical experiences have two primary features. First, they bring a Sense of Union with God/the Sacred. In this non-ordinary state of consciousness the dualistic sense of being separated from the world softens, dissolves, or falls away and the world looks different. For example, it might have a radiant luminosity, or you might have visions or feel a strong inner awareness of the presence of the Sacred. The second feature is a Sense of Illumination. You might see a strange light, or feel profoundly enlightened, or have a sense of awakening from a foggy blindness, or feel that your eyes have been opened to see reality, the world, and your life differently.
James notes four additional features of such experiences: ineffability (difficulty describing them in words); transiency (they are usually only seconds or minutes long); passivity (you cannot make them happen; they just do); and noetic (meaning you have a knowing, not just a feeling.)
Because some scholars and religious authorities view mysticism negatively or consider it problematic or unimportant, it is rarely discussed. This, despite the fact that it is the foundation of the world’s religions! In Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all the central figures — Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, the prophets, Buddha, Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, Mary Magdalene, Muhammad — experienced the sacred in personal, mystical ways and responded by creating religions that were in accord with the values of their particular cultures. Since then, the membership of each of these religions has contained mystics; many, quite well-known and respected even among the orthodoxy. Yet few people know it has relevance in today’s world.
The mistrust of mysticism derives from the fact that there have always been a few terribly unbalanced people whose mystical experiences lead them to do harmful things in God’s name. But know this: While the details and localized beliefs of religions vary widely, all authentic religions and Spiritual Warriors produce the same fruit: “love, compassion, a passion for God’s world.” This is the only test necessary for distinguishing between “diabolical” mystical experiences and healing ones which connect us to “what is” and empower us to help make the world a better place through love. May we all experience more of this sacred mystery.
For more information, enjoy this video of wisewoman Jean Houston speaking about mystical awakening.