Religious beliefs have played a significant part in human lives ever since their inception in ancient societies. The idea of the presence of some being that is beyond the material world has helped people find answers to crucial questions. They could obtain an understanding of how the world is organized and what place a human takes in it. Mystical experiences that form the essence of any religion determine how a believer unites with the holy being that is named differently in various religions. Such unity is the way to salvation and life in eternity, which is so sacred for all believers. Mysticism, as manifested in prayers, rapture, or visions, is a necessary part of one’s spiritual life that brings meaning to life and the proof of the power of religion.
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According to research, even though most world religions have different frameworks of beliefs, they all are marked by mysticism (Mercer and Durham 176-177; Stendahl 854). Mysticism and religion are different phenomena, though they are closely connected. One who believes in a holy being seeks the way to prove its existence and finds it in his or her inner experience. In the Christian system of beliefs, there are particular, distinct features based on a strong theoretical background that made this religion a powerful and influential one. Although Christianity was created as one different from the major religions of its time, it borrowed from Roman and Greek traditions of mysticism, which later formed the backbone of Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. In this paper, the meaning of mysticism will be discussed in its relation to religion and its role in the life of a religious person. The characteristic features of mysticism and its effect on religious ideas of Christianity will be viewed through the perspective of the ubiquitous nature of this phenomenon and its relation to gender.
Mysticism as a Phenomenon
Mysticism might be identified as spiritual experiences obtained through religious practices. This phenomenon is different from the notion of religion because, according to Stendahl, religion is twofold and includes material or institutional side and a spiritual one (854). Moreover, the spiritual manifestation of religion attributes mysticism as an additional characteristic that determines a true believer capable of experiencing the presence of a holy spirit. In Stendahl’s opinion, religion without mysticism is possible, but then it would be “contaminated expressions of religion, be they legalistic, institutionalized, or just traditional” (855). A person cannot find a logical and evidence-based proof of God (or another manifestation of a holy other depending on religion). Therefore, mystical experience is the only possible way to feel the presence of God without a necessity to explain it.
The issue of logical explanation of mysticism brings the discussion to the articulation of specific features of this phenomenon. The precise classification of them was made by Stace and presented in the article by Mercer and Dunham. The researchers agree on the differentiation between two main types of mysticism, including introvertive and extrovertive, both of which share the same characteristics. The first shared criterion is the fact that mysticism is noetic, meaning that it is perceived as a source of information and spiritual knowledge. The second characteristic is the ineffable nature of mysticism because one cannot express or describe it verbally. Also, both introvertive and extrovertive mysticism are holy, in other words, related to some sacred practice of religion. Another criterion deals with the positive effect of mysticism on a person who experiences it; thus, it brings pleasure and determination for a genuinely religious person. Finally, the last shared feature of both types of mysticism is their paradoxical nature that “defies logic” (Mercer and Durham 175). It is evident that all these elements are not connected to any religion and exist separately.
In addition to these characteristics, researchers argue that there is another essential feature specific to mysticism, which is unity with the spiritual side that is available only for the one who experiences a mystical event. However strong the relation of the phenomenon under discussion is to religion, it is claimed that there is a non-religious type of mysticism that is manifested in “an experience of timelessness and spacelessness” (Mercer and Durham 176). From this perspective, a person might experience an event of spiritual unity but not connect it to any religious belief. Thus, religion and mysticism are different phenomena, although the latter has a very significant influence on the development of the former.
Mysticism in Religion
Christianity, as one of the leading religious paradigms in the world, has a strong connection to mysticism. However, it has been discovered that many other religions of the modern world were significantly impacted by mystical experiences, which constitute the essence of their religious practices (Anthony et al. 264-265). Indeed, the very essence of Christians’ belief about the relation of reality to the spiritual power of faith determining the afterlife emphasizes the importance of mystical practices. Within the Christian system of beliefs, “mystical experience can be seen as comprising both mystical consciousness … and its interpretation,” thus forming a system of events that prove the unity of a believer and God (Anthony et al. 267). Such a kind of connection is identified as a vertical type of mysticism, characteristic of Christianity.
According to the empirical research conducted by Anthony et al., the participants of which were Hindu, Muslim, and Christian students in India, the level of mysticism in these religions is high (273-274). However, the qualitative characteristics of the mystical experiences in different religions vary. The results of the research show that Hindu students are more involved in horizontal mysticism manifested through the unity with the broader reality rather than with a holy being. Muslim and Christian participants, on the other hand, showed a significant level of vertical mysticism, which entails the unity with God that cannot be logically explained (Anthony et al. 273). Similar to the Greek and Roman mysticism characterized by the vertical system of unity with the gods, Christian religion demonstrates the same features which underline the strong influence of mystical experiences on religion.
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Mysticism and Gender
Research in the field of mysticism and its relation to theology and religious beliefs present a broad theme of gender to the discussion. Indeed, when the issue of gender in the sample population for the studies is viewed more closely, interesting tendencies might be observed. According to Mercer and Durham, the correlation between gender and predisposition to mystical experiences might be explained through the lenses of “gender schema theory” (175). According to this theoretical justification, people’s personality development in a social context is determined by the gender characteristics imposed on them according to their sex. Gender schemas allow a person to “categorize, explain, and evaluate incoming information” (Mercer and Durham 176). Indeed, female and male individuals have different views on fundamental things in life and express varying levels of a tendency to spiritual life events. As claimed by the supporters of the theory, women are more religious than men due to the socially implied differences in their attitudes to life (Mercer and Durham 177). Thus, women and men, or rather people with female or masculine gender schemas, show a different level of predisposition to mystical experiences.
This claim was proven in a study by Mercer and Durham and could be explained by the developmental insights into gender. The justification of the results showing women’s higher level of mysticism is in the belief that gender orientation evolves earlier in the life of a person than the religious beliefs do (Mercer and Durham 180). Therefore, the direction of the influences is from gender to mysticism and not the opposite. Unity as the leading feature of mysticism is more natural for feminine types of personality characterized by communal nature and overall sensitivity to others (Mercer and Durham 180). Thus, gender plays a very significant role in mystical experiences due to the predisposition of females to relate to the essential criteria of mysticism naturally.
In summary, religion and mysticism are different phenomena but are closely connected in terms of people’s need to find proof of religious beliefs through their personal spiritual experiences. Ancient mystical beliefs have developed and influenced the main religions, including Christianity, which mostly relates to Greek and Roman mysticism. Although different religions are characterized either by vertical or horizontal types of mysticism, they all share the same extent of dependence on it. However, the mystical experience might be non-religious, which justifies the distinction between religion and mysticism. Also, gender plays an essential role in the tendency to experience mystical events due to females’ natural predisposition to spiritual unity and sensitivity to others, which are pivotal for mystical practices.
Anthony, Francis-Vincent, et al. “A Comparative Study of Mystical Experience Among Christian, Muslim, and Hindu Students in Tamil Nadu, India.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 49, no. 2, 2010, pp. 264-277.
Mercer, Calvin, and Thomas W. Durham. “Religious Mysticism and Gender Orientation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 38, no. 1, 1999, pp. 175-182.
Stendahl, Krister. “Religion, Mysticism, and the Institutional Church.” Daedalus, vol. 96, no. 3, 1967, pp. 854-859.