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« Theology and Science | Main | Christian Apophaticism ... and David Tracy »

03/08/2010

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Patrick S. O'Donnell

BTW: The linked work without subscription!

First, the tension between the exoteric and esoteric, at least with respect to God, was well captured in an apparent (historical and theological) paradox formulated by Iris Murdoch, one which seems common to the monotheistic traditions:

"We yearn for the transcendent, for God, for something divine and good and pure, but in picturing the transcendent we transform it into idols which we then realise to be contingent particulars, just things among others here below. If we destroy these idols in order to reach something untainted and pure, what we really need, the thing itself, we render the Divine ineffable, and as such in peril of being judged non-existent. Then the sense of the Divine vanishes in the attempt to preserve it."

There's much I find congenial in Johnson's essay, save a few of the generalizations and, it seems to me at least, the exaggerated dualism between the exoteric and esoteric which is purchased at the expense of the former. Inner piety, devotion, love, faith and so forth are not the exclusive prerogative of the mystical traditions and I think there is not only a tension between the exoteric and esoteric here but much overlap as well, even if mysticism as such is confined to comparatively few (a spiritual elite) in all three traditions (it's still an open question as to who might one day become a member of this elite).

And I think it is rather arguable that "Judaism has proved most successful at harmonizing exoteric and esoteric expression," indeed, I think Islam does just as well if not better in this respect.

Johnson is right to see Islam as a necessary and sufficient condition for Sufism and thus it makes no sense whatsoever to speak of Sufis or Sufism outside of the Islamic tradition, even if one finds much in Sufi spirituality akin, say, to Christian mysticism or even some forms of Hindu mysticism (Schimmmel has discussed this at some length).

The ascetic exercises (used here in a generous sense) that are typically a necessary but not sufficient condition for mystical experience are not found among most religious devotees for good reason: they are rather time-consuming and presuppose a form of association (be it monastic orders or Sufi tariqas) not conducive to forms of daily life found in the general populace. And related to these specific forms of religious association are literary traditions which are difficult to master (even with ample time and attention) as part and parcel of one's arduous spiritual regimen. As Cottingham has written: "the world of the mystic is a rarefied world, perhaps like the heights of Machu Pichu suited for habitation only by those whose blood has become specially adapted for such altitudes. If religion is not to be confined to a spiritual elite, it must be able to speak a language suitable for ordinary humanity--indeed, to close off that possibility would be a denial of the compassion and universalism that is the hallmark of the great religions."

And a comment on the following statement:

"No longer would the esoteric, mystical reading of the Qur’an taught by the Shaykhs dominate Islam, but instead the “original” exoteric, political program of the prophet. Thus, the frequently stated axiom that one can be truly Muslim only in an Islamic state—a conviction utterly at odds with the spirit of the Sufi."

An esoteric, mystical reading of the Qur'an never dominated Islam and non-Sufi Muslims throughout the world, both in theory and praxis, often demonstrate the fact that one can be a true Muslim outside of any putative Islamic state (as to what that would be in any case, opinions vary widely, and there is certainly no 'pure' Islamic state anywhere on the planet). And it is possible that some Sufis might endorse the idea of an Islamic state, although I agree it's contrary to at least the spirit of Sufism. Historically, there have been rather political Sufis at different times and places throughout the Islamic world, contrary to the impression one might glean from the article.

While it may be true that religion cannot live without mysticism, most religious devotees will never be mystics, and their spirituality will be no less authentic or true for all that.

Steve Shiffrin

Patrick, good stuff as always. There is one thing I forgot to mention. Johnson takes a swipe at liberation theology for privileging the external (or exoteric) over the mystical. I think those people who risk their lives or risk going to jail in accordance with a religious tradition frequently have the kind of deep prayer lives Johnson associates with the mystical tradition (which I think he uses in a broader way than you and others do). Those prayer lives give them strength to keep going. I see this in the Catholic Workers I know and I believe it has to be true of those who followed the path of liberation theology.
Steve

Patrick S. O'Donnell

I wholeheartedly agree Steve (presumably this is a typo: "O'Donnell takes....").

Steve Shiffrin

Patrick, so true. I changed ODonnell to Johnson.
Thanks
Steve

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Johnson recognizes that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are best known for focusing on the external, but maintains that each has contained a strong element of mysticism.

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