Mysticism is hiding in plain sight. One can search for it in a desert or atop a mountain and perhaps find it there with incomparable starkness. But it is everywhere. The hard part is not discovering it but saying what it is—and knowing how to live with and through it.
As a word, it has many histories in many languages. Like other “isms,” it has been used as a negative epithet. When wielded pejoratively, it paints ideas as irrational, heretical, dangerous, feminine, oriental, or strange. It names and disparages the “other” of Western intellectual and moral achievement. However, nothing prevents one from reframing mysticism positively, whether by rejecting these associations or—the more intriguing route—by celebrating them.
One can affirm mysticism precisely because of the suspect, antagonistic, or alternative possibilities it introduces. This is the sort of support mysticism has received in postmodern Francophone writers such as Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Michel de Certeau, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. This is why Latinx thinkers such as Gloria Anzaldúa and Black thinkers such as Fred Moten have adopted mystical styles in their poetry and theory.
Mysticism is not the exclusive property of religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam—though each boasts wondrous experiences that sometimes receive this appellation—and mysticism is, therefore, certainly not limited to the domain of Christian theology, which is my academic field. It travels freely and appears even in places regarded as secular. For this reason, some Christian theologians attempt to keep mysticism at a distance, preferring the safety of closed systems of doctrine.
Yet other Christian theologians (and I count myself among them) embrace mysticism, while seeking both to define and direct its subversive power. They attach mysticism to a normative tradition, sometimes called “mystical theology,” which emerges from the Christian Platonism of Church Fathers such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Pseudo-Dionysius. This tradition is adapted by medieval giants such as Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Julian of Norwich, and Meister Eckhart and transposed, beginning with Martin Luther, into the teachings of the Reformers. It tethers mysticism to Christian beliefs about the incarnate Word, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the communal life of grace, prayer, and holiness.
Theological authors as diverse as Karl Rahner, Maria Clara Bingemer, Denys Turner, Sarah Coakley, Dorothee Soelle, Mark McIntosh, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, and M. Shawn Copeland welcome this sacred tradition but also want mystical theology to mean more than it has meant. They want it to bless the everyday lives of the laity. They want it to raise questions about fixed gender roles, the surety of theological utterances, and the disruptive force of the divine in history. In mysticism, they find a path back to the experiential sources of their religious faith and a path ahead toward desired transformations in church and society.
With mysticism, contemporary theory and Christian theology find an energizing common ground. These discourses share a subversive spirit. The question is whether this spirit only channels the productive obscurities of languages, bodies, and histories or also makes present the mysterious God worshipped by believers. There is obviously no agreement among these parties about whether the Christian tradition should be normative, but there is an emerging consensus that social norms related to gender, race, power, and knowledge must pass through a mystical fire, which will either destroy or transfigure them.
This fire is the justice offered to precarious communities that have been maligned and abused. It is the love that emerges within such communities and empowers them to resist domination. It is the desire for another possible world. This passion is burning in every city and every slum. It is hidden in the silence of quotidian struggles for survival. It may very well be the unknown God breathing and becoming flesh in our midst. But even if there is no such divine agent, mysticism remains a material force, questioning and exposing structures in their contingency.
Mysticism is everywhere: in the soul and in the world, near at hand and as distant as the stars, where you most expect it and where you least expect it. This ubiquity may suggest that mysticism is devoid of meaning or practical significance, but that is far from the case. Each life is a testament to it in one way or another. Each life makes choices about how to respond to its call, as the phenomenologist Jean-Louis Chrétien might say. Each body, in its affects and actions, is marked by the impossibility of mastering its play.
Uncovering examples of mysticism is trivial, because they are all around us. The real work consists in learning what they have to teach us and bearing the weight of those lessons.
***These themes are explored further in the author’s new book, The Mysticism of Ordinary Life: Theology, Philosophy, and Feminism.***