To most people, mysticism is, almost literally, the opposite of rationality. I'm pretty sure that it was my teacher Dr. Larry Hoffman who said that most people's working definition of mysticism is, "weird religious things that other people do, but I don't." "Mysticism" conjures up images of people in flowing robes, burning incense and claiming to have access to alternative dimensions. Lots of swaying and fingerbells, mixed in with a healthy dose of pseudo-metaphysical talk. Not exactly my cup of tea, to put it mildly.
But, what if that's not what mysticism really is. Or, at least not what it has to be? What if there is a mysticism which is, in fact, quite doggedly rational? What would that look like?
Many of you reading this know that I have an intellectual crush on Rabbi Art Green and, especially, his book Radical Judaism. Well, in that book, and in that recent article I came across, Green tries to explicate a new vision for Judaism, one which is based on a modern, fully rational mysticism. Here's how he explains it in radical Judaism:
"The sacred" refers to an inward, mysterious sense of awesome presence, a reality deeper than the kind we ordinarily experience. Life bears within it the possibility of inner transcendence; the moments when we glimpse it are so rare and powerful that they call upon us to transform the rest of our lives in their wake.… When that mask of ordinariness falls away, our consciousness is left with a moment of nakedness, a confrontation with a reality that we do not know how to put into language. (Radical Judaism, page 4)There's nothing esoteric about this. He's describing an awareness and an experience which most of us have had, to 1 degree or another, or the very least can understand. He isn't making any claims about the underlying nature of the universe, or of the independent reality of supernal realms. He simply talking about the natural, human ability to sense something transcendent in the world around us. That sense that we get, often when standing at the sea or the edge of the Grand Canyon, that there's more to the world than we can really take in or comprehend.
Or, as he says a bit later in his book (page 18), he simply believes that the whole world "is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts" and that "this [reality] is accessible to human experience." Put even more simply, the world is radically more Awesome and, if you're willing to use the language, Holy, than we tend to see on a daily basis, but there are ways that we can attune ourselves to see that Awesomeness and Holiness more regularly. In the article I keep referring to, he offers a pretty great summary of a Judaism based on this neo-mystical vision:
A Judaism that will speak to the emerging twenty-first century generations is only beginning to emerge. In contrast to Kaplan’s era, its point of departure will be the Jewish mystical rather than the rationalist tradition. A radical spiritualization of Judaism’s truth, begun within Hasidism some two hundred years ago, needs to be updated and universalized to appeal to today’s Jewish seeker. It offers the possibility of a religious language that will address contemporary concerns while calling for a deep faith-based attachment to the essential forms and tropes of Jewish piety. Mystical religion by its very nature shifts the focus of attention away from the positive/historical and inward toward the devotional/experiential. The question is not: “Do you believe that God created the world, and when?” but rather “Do you encounter a divine presence in the natural world around you?” and “What does that encounter call upon you to do?” We are not concerned with “Did Israel hear God’s word at Sinai, and how much of the Torah was given there?” but rather “Can you feel yourself standing before the mountain as you hear the words of Torah?” The “events” of Israel’s sacred narrative are read here as myth rather than history, but their voice is made more powerful rather than less as they call forth deep personal engagement and commitment. The God of this religion is not the commanding Other who rules over history, but rather the still, small voice from within that calls upon us to open our hearts and turn our lives toward goodness, even in the face of terrible human evil and the inexplicable reality of nature’s indifference to our individual human plight. This sort of new mystical or Neo-Hasidic piety turns toward the natural world as a source of inspiration, seeing existence itself as an object of wonder and devotion. It finds the miraculous in daily life and tends to focus its religious energy on the building and celebration of human community.What if there is a way to be fully rational, to not have to abdicate one iota of our intellectual capacity, but still find Awesome transcendence in the world? What if it's possible to have the faith of the mystic while maintaining the mind of a scientist? What if I could actually say in polite company that I'm a mystic, without having to feel like I need to apologize for that? 10 years ago, I would have laughed at the idea. Maybe even a lot more recently than that. But, not now. Now, it's seeming more and more clear that it's the truth.