An Introduction to the Study of Mysticism
- ISBN: 9781438486338
- Published By: State University of New York Press
- Published: December 2021
An Introduction to the Study of Mysticism, by Richard H. Jones, reads exactly as the title suggests. While the reader will not find a survey of world mystical traditions or any “how-to” explanations, the foundational language for the study of mysticism is explained clearly throughout. The book begins with a definition of “mystical experience,” which, to paraphrase, is when an individual connects to the ultimate reality beyond our physical world through an altered state of consciousness. This definition may seem surprisingly narrow to those outside of the field of study, since mysticism does not necessarily include the occult, prophesy, miraculous healing, demonology, or the like. However, the book’s relatively narrow focus does not mean there is a shortage of fascinating areas to explore. The volume provides a groundwork for mystical studies and offers a variety of perspectives on the interpretations and debates that animate the field, along with essential terminology, labels, and categories. Throughout the book, themes such as duality vs. non-duality and the various types of extroverted and introverted mystical experiences are visited frequently.
The pleasure of this book lies in its clear and concise explanations of abstract and complex ideas. It is easy for scholars to go down rabbit holes or get sidetracked with lofty, yet often pointless, vocabulary. However, Jones manages to avoid these pitfalls. Each subject is discussed at an appropriate and accessible length for an introductory book. Jones also neither negates nor encourages mystical experiences, keeping a neutral attitude towards the experiences themselves while highlighting the benefits of studying them. Mysticism is a world-wide human activity that has been practiced for virtually our entire history as far as we can tell. As such, it is effectively a permanent feature of human culture, in much the same way as marriage rituals
Jones explains that for most mystics, the altered state of consciousness is not the goal, but a means to an end: to attain knowledge that will help them in their daily religious practices. Mysticism is essentially a search for knowledge that can only be found in an altered state of consciousness, when communing with a higher reality inaccessible under normal circumstances. In the book, Jones asserts that the study of mysticism is not only for those interested in history and religion, but also for those interested in human consciousness in other fields, such as psychology and neuroscience. Jones states in the last chapter of the book that altered states of consciousness are important for our “understanding of the nature of our consciousness and thus what a human being is” (231). Jones also goes on to note that mysticism is often of more interest to neuroscientists than humanities scholars. One of the neurological questions explored in this field is whether the brain permits the mystical experience to happen or if creates the experience.
Additionally, a student of the subject must consider how the mystic’s religious beliefs may affect their mystical experiences and the following interpretation of those experiences. There are two primary theories in this regard – constructivism and non-constructivism. The constructivism theory states that the experience itself is affected by religious doctrines. Under the non-constructivism point of view, only the understanding of the mystical experience is framed by the religious beliefs under which it is experienced. In either situation, the mystic’s religion cannot be fully separated from the experience.
A debate also exists as to whether one outside of a religion can fully understand the mystical experiences within it. Can a lack of certain beliefs prevent adequate comprehension? Many mystics claim, despite the lengthy descriptions they often provide, that human language is not sufficient to fully describe their experience or the knowledge they attained. Can one who has not had mystical experiences understand and explore them? Is there a place in this discussion for perennial philosophy, which says that all types of mystics experience the same Truth but within different languages called religions? These questions are among the many explored in the book. The intention of the book is not to find all the answers but to explore the various theories that have been developed to resolve them.
April Lynn Downey is an independent scholar.April DowneyDate Of Review:December 1, 2022