Mysticism is dangerous. But first, you ask, what is mysticism? There are lots of definitions. My personal favorite, by the 20-Century British writer on the subject Evelyn Underhill, is “mysticism is first-person religion.” To paraphrase the rationalist Thomas Paine, Revelation is only for the person who received it. For everyone else it is mere hearsay. Yet at least the three Abrahamic religions are based on revelations to others. We “believers” are simply taking their experiences on faith. Our religions are thus third-person affairs. Think of the Black hymn “Where you there when they crucified our Lord?” Nope. And neither were you. “Where you there when they laid Him in the ground (cave)?” Ditto. Or how about “Where you there when He rose up to the Sky?” I rest my case. None of us was there. It’s all hearsay—hearsay which some of us choose to believe.
So let’s talk a bit about mysticism and why it’s dangerous. Saul of Tarsus, a self-admitted Pharisee of the Pharisees, had been deputized by the Chief Priest in Jerusalem to arrest Christians in Damascus. On the way there, he heard the voice of the dead Jesus asking why he, Saul, was persecuting him, Jesus. The latter went on to say that Saul was on the wrong side of history and implied that he should get with the program. To underscore the point, Saul was struck blind for three days. As a result, Saul became St. Paul, the major founder of Christianity. Now that’s first-person religion.
So mysticism is dangerous, to begin with, because it can turn your world upside down, create a new you in you, change your values, affiliations, even your religion. Secondly, it can get you killed. Besides Socrates, Jesus, St. Paul, and more recently the Bab, the co-creator of the Baha’i Faith, I think of the Persian Sufi Al-Hallaj, who made the mistake of uttering while in an ecstatic state, “Ana al-hak!”; “I am the Truth.” Now since “Truth” is one of the 99 Beautiful Names of Allah, he basically said, “I am God!” If you want to get yourself martyred in the Islamic community, that’s not a bad place to start, even today.
Finally, mysticism is dangerous because the guardians of formal religions just hate it when you go direct. I mean, religions espouse the wholesale approach, while mysticism is frighteningly retail. “Why does one need Sufism?” A well-dressed female Algerian doctor asked Cedar and me on the Tangier-to-Rabat Express. “Muhammad’s sunnah [the rules and regs of traditional Sunni Islam] contains everything a person needs to obey the will of God.” Well, maybe. But maybe not. To paraphrase Robin Meyers’ main point in Freeing Jesus from the Church, the Sermon on the Mount is all about behavior, while the Nicene Creed is all about belief. To behave differently, as Saul showed us, requires transformative first-person experience, not conventional group belief in someone else’s. But remember: If you agree with me and start seeking out the former, watch your back. History clearly shows that mysticism is nothing if not dangerous.