Lost Ecstasy: Its Decline and Transformation in Religion by June McDaniel is a general survey of academic approaches to and theories about mysticism, as well as a Jeremiad against negative academic biases demonstrated towards experiential religion. There are chapters on popular ecstatic and mystical practices (New Age tantric sex, entheogenic drugs, rave culture dance and music) and Indian people's views and experiences of their religions in contrast to Western scholars, a reassessment of some classics in the field, and some suggestions for a way to move forward to positively re-incorporating mysticism into the study of religion.
McDaniel is highly critical of reductionist scholarly neglect and scholars’ dismissal of experiential religion. She perceives it as a problem with scholars defining other people’s experiences for them, and with underlying assumptions about legitimacy which a priori screen out the mystical and ecstatic experiences of a sizeable minority—if not the majority—of humanity. Since only the (small number of) approved mystical experiences are permitted any credence—even in theology, where one might expect some openness to them—the pool of allowable data is reduced below the point where anything meaningful can be seen, or any rational conclusions drawn.
The rationalist biases McDaniel illustrates lead to a contradiction—scholarship which purports to be about one thing, and a priori defines out many of the experiences that reasonably fit into that thing cannot, in fact, be about anything except self-congratulatory conformation bias.
For McDaniel, Religious Studies as a discipline is biased against experiential religion, denying religious people the fact of their own experience. Additionally, there is a great deal of self-indulgence, spending time trying to decide if what we’re looking at really exists—while making the previously discussed decisions to exclude a large fraction of likely data—an issue in theology and other fields as well. The fashion in the Western academy is against serious consideration of this significant set of experiences and data.
There is some interesting work and scholarship in this area. This reviewer would be less inclined to dismiss Stephen Wasserstrom’s reservations about Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell and the Jungians, or Jeffrey Kripal’s insights into implicit (and explicit) misogyny and distorted sexual politics in mystical traditions in the way McDaniel appears to. There is also a great deal of work that McDaniel did not consider—Catherine Bell’s ritual theory, Courtney Bender and Nancy Ammerman’s sociologies of religion, and post-colonial theoreticians like Dipesh Chakrabarty and Homi Bhabha who generally do not deal directly with mystical experience but provide excellent tools for understanding experiential religion as part of a larger complex of experiences.
The “insider/outsider” discussion crops up here (an area where Kripal, for one, is much more nuanced than McDaniel credits). Although scholarship is important, people take ownership of their own lives, and religious or meaning-full experiences of ecstatic practices are no exception. Once it’s accepted that people have meaningful experiences, and that a purely reductionist approach is an attack on the rights of people to own these meanings, we open up this area of study. Religion is not only a set of external structures for the individual, but also the experiences and connections they have. There is no substitute for experience, therefore we must walk alongside the people who are having the experiences that are of interest, not look down on them, trying to stigmatize, criminalize, or medicalize the meanings of their lives.
As McDaniel points out and demonstrates effectively, in the literature of Religious Studies, Theology, and Sociology, pre-judging reality is antithetical to scholarship. A combination of priori definition and academic snobbery is the “guardian at the Threshold,” the gatekeeper to academic respectability, which defines the heretics who take these ecstatic experiences seriously outside of the academy.
As McDaniel demonstrates effectively in her chapters on ecstatic practice in popular culture (sex, drugs, and rock and roll), within charismatic movements in all three of the Abrahamic religions, and its continuing power in the religions of India, ignoring or dismissing ecstasy does not mean it ceases to exist. It only means that Western scholarship does not deal with it. Her return to the “classics” including Eliade and Carl Jung is only partially convincing—many of the criticisms of them seem well-founded, although comparative approaches are not always invalid.
Lost Ecstasy is a valuable contribution—a general survey of the literature in this area across several disciplines, and an effective corrective note about biases in the academy. McDaniel has not found a solution to the failure of the academy. The issues raised by accepting ecstatic experiences as useful to the people who have them, and to the religious movements (and popular culture) fueled by them, demonstrate the weaknesses of these fashionable approaches. So, let us continue the discussion, find those fruitful avenues for further exploration.
Samuel Wagar is a doctoral student in Wicca and Ministry at St. Stephen's College.
Date Of Review:
March 8, 2019
June McDaniel is Professor of the History of Religions at the College of Charleston.
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