Kabbalah. Gnosticism. Sufism. These are all disciplines which are known as the ‘mystical’ sects of their religions.
What does it mean for a set of beliefs to be ‘mystical’? In one sense, these beliefs are religious in the typical way: they posit the existence of God, they make a distinction between the sacred and the profane, and they prescribe rituals and ways of life which promise the closeness of God in this life and the hereafter.
And yet these schools of thought have often been met with extreme scrutiny, and even persecution, by the orthodoxies of their respective religions. In some cases, the mystical belief becomes excommunicated and their followers find themselves picking up the pieces to an entirely new religion. These kinds of schisms are common in history.
For political and social reasons, the religious orthodoxy is often dependent on specific ideas which must be held as unreflecting beliefs. These are often compiled into creeds, and a person’s piety is judged based on their outward adherence to these established texts.
The psychologist Carl Jung, who put a great emphasis on the process of self-discovery, was very suspicious of religious creeds. For him, the properly religious belief was one which was symbolic. Jung describes the symbol in the following way:
What we call a symbol is a term, a name, or an image which in itself may be familiar to us, but its connotations, use, and application are specific or peculiar and hint at a hidden, vague, or unknown meaning.The Undiscovered Self, pg. 65
The distinction Jung makes between the religious creed and the religious symbol is useful in our understanding of mystical religion. What distinguishes a mystical sects from mainstream religion is an emphasis away from creeds and towards the symbolic content of religious ideas.
To interpret a religious idea symbolically is to posit that it contains a still undiscovered secret meaning ‘beyond’ its immediate meaning. This is inherently opposed to the concept of creeds and formalized religious dogma in two ways.
The first is that it requires work and study. To understand a religious idea symbolically, one must be aware of its overall context and more nuanced details that aren’t immediately perceptible to the religious learner. This level of detail is forgone by the quick, summarized presentation of a religious creed.
But a symbolic idea is also deeply personal. Whereas a creed is objective, being made to be understood by everyone, the symbolic content of a religious idea often requires the religious learner to explore themselves and apply the idea to their own subjectivity.
Because of this, the mystic invites members of his own religion to this some work can be done to understand the same religious idea from an entirely new perspective.
This distinction between mainstream creeds and the more symbolic aspects of religious belief is reflected in the Orthodox Christian concepts of dogma and kerygma.
A similar distinction exists in the Sufi tradition, specifically in the interpretation of Quranic verses. Sufis are prone to interpretation the Quran esoterically, in a process called ta’wil. This is contrasted from tafsir, which comprises the ‘conventional’ interpretation of a certain verse.
And this is the true meaning of mystical belief. It is belief which, far from being objective and formalized, relies on a deeply subjective truth which differs from person to person. The extent to which mystical sects teach these beliefs, then, is simply the extent to which they invite the practitioner to an engagement with religious ideas that requires deeper knowledge of the self.
Religious devotion, fear, and hope
هُوَ الَّذِي يُرِيكُمُ الْبَرْقَ خَوْفًا وَطَمَعًا وَيُنشِئُ السَّحَابَ الثِّقَالَ
“It is He who shows you lightening, [causing] fear and greed, and generates the heavy clouds”
In this Quranic verse [13:12] we imagine the sight of heavy clouds approaching from beyond the horizon. For a traveler of the Arabian desert, this must have invoked two feelings at once: fear of the possibility of lightening, and greed for the prospect of rain.
This verse is a good example of the kind of symbolic
There’s a paradox at the heart of religious belief which involves these two concepts. On one hand, the religious person expects that his piety and faith will be rewarded in this life. But at the same time, he must not be excessive in this sense of expectation and remember that everything is for God.
The duality of fear and hope is a central concept in Sufi thought. For the mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, our relationship with God involves both aspects: there cannot be one without the other.
Someone asked whether or not there is harm in putting one’s hopes in God and expecting a good recompense for having done good and good works.Signs of the Unseen, pg. 79
“Yes, one must have hope and faith, or, expressed another way, fear and hope. Someone asked me, since hope itself is a good things, what fear is. “Show me fear without hope,” I said, “or hope without fear, for these two are inseparable.” Since you ask, I’ll give you an example. When someone plants wheat, he of course hopes that it will grow. At the same time, however, he is fearful that some blight or disaster may befall it. It is obvious that there is no such thing as hope without fear. Neither fear without hope nor hope without fear can be imagined”
The petitioner in this dialogue brings up , we can begin Rumi is essentially asked whether a person can be greedy towards receiving God’s favors. He responds by affirming the
For the Sufi, piety is an irreducible duality of hope and fear. Whatever degree of piety someone has — whether they’re a new believer or a skilled theologian — the Sufi understands his devotion has being an ever-present duality of fear (khawf) and hope (raja’). For that reason, ‘greed’ is permissible, but only to the extent that it is supplemented with the same amount of fear.
This irreducible duality of fear and hope is a condition of our engagement in a world we cannot control.
This duality is an interesting formal aspect of Sufi philosophy. It is also present in psychoanalysis as jouissance, a form of enjoyment is beyond Freud’s pleasure principle. It can be understood as the underlying ‘benefit’ that nonetheless is behind self-defeating activities.
What both jouissance and the Sufi description of piety have in common is that they challenge a typical conception of a dichotomy. In psychoanalysis, we cannot
It is not reducible to a belief