[su_spoiler title="Article Abstract" style="fancy"]Since Marx first declared religion to be the opiate of the masses, institutions of religion and spirituality have been preemptively rejected from serious consideration by most scholars, critical sociologists included. The assumption seems to always be that religion is either a reactionary response to difficult realities or a mere illusion, delusion, or epiphenomenon of brain/social function. This paper looks at the “authentic core” of religious institutions, religious experience, and, using biographical examples from the literature, argues that far from being a reactionary holdout of our primitive past, religion and spirituality are, in fact, essentially revolutionary in content. It is suggested that, in the context of a growing global ecological, political, and economic crises, the revolutionary core of religion and spirituality has to be examined, recovered, and even embraced as part of any local or global strategy of transformation. [/su_spoiler][su_spoiler title="Rejection Record" style="fancy"]

2015 Socialist Studies http://socialiststudies.ca/journal/. Could not be bothered or could not find a reviewer to review the paper.

2015. Spirituality Studies. Accepted pending major revisions. Later ignored for some reason.

Early 2016. Submitted Canadian Journal of Sociology, rejected because of straw man. Fair. Removed straw man.

August 2016. Submitted to Athens Journal of Social Science.

[/su_spoiler][su_spoiler title="Content" style="fancy"]
This article is in final draft stage. You may cite this article's ideas as an unpublished manuscript, but don't use direct quotes because the text is likely to undergo changes.

Arise, o son! Burst the bonds and be free!
How long wilt thou be captive to silver and gold?
Rumi

Dangerous memories – slavery, mysticism, and transformation

The business for which GOD sends a Christian priest in a Christian nation… is to preach and practice Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood, in the fullest, deepest, widest meaning of these three great words. In so far as he does, he is a true priest, doing the LORD’S work with the LORD’S blessing upon him. In so far as he does not, he is no priest at all, but a traitor to GOD and man (Charles Kingsley quoted in Masterman, 1907, pp. 98-99).

There is a misconception and a hostility percolating in the world at large, in mainstream academia, and in particular in the discipline of Sociology, and that misconception and hostility is that religion/spirituality is a bad thing, a primitive thing, an irrational thing, a stupid thing, and a declining thing. This is the misconception that there is nothing in mystical experience, nothing in religious experience, and nothing in the spiritual aspirations of the people of this planet to warrant anything more than dismissive scholarly interest. This misconception originates in the “separatist principles” of sociology adopted by the disciplines founding elders (Cohn, 2013). These principles led the founding elders, and subsequent generations of sociologists, to accept, present, and expect, sociology to be religion’s executioner. As Cohn and Markides (2013: 34) note, “They claimed that, as a science, sociology would disprove the claims of religion and establish human knowledge upon purely material foundations.” These “separatist aspiration” are especially prevalent in sociological luminaries who have rejected spirituality as elite machination (Berger, 1969: Marx, 1978) cussed stupidity (whose discussion is “beyond the pale” of self-respecting faculty parties (Berger, 1999: 4)) and implausible (Bruce, 2002) and superstitious nonsense likely to die out as secularization tromped its way through the unfolding history of modernity (Berger, 1968, 1969; Bruce, 2002; Karel Dobbelaere, 1981; K Dobbelaere, 2002). This misconception is formalized in Durkheim’s secularization thesis (Durkheim, 1965 (1912)) which holds that religion would eventually die out as society modernized and industrialized. It matters not that the secularization thesis has proven to be wrong or at least not as straightforward as first imagined (Berger, 1997), sociology in particular is notably hostile to religion and spirituality (Featherstone & Sorrell, 2007).

Of course, sociologists are not the only scholars participating in the hostility. Sigmund Freud ultimately rejected religious experiences as an infantile regression (Freud, 1961, 1964) and others have followed suit, reducing religious experience to boob experiences (Prince & Savage, 2012), soothing experiences (Horton, 1974), micro-seizures in the brain (Michael A. Persinger, 1983; M.A.  Persinger, 1987; M.A. Persinger, 2002), activity of the limbic system (Joseph, 2001), high altitude hypoxia (Arzy, Idel, Landis, & Blanke, 2005), neural cross talk (Monastersky, 2006), gene expression (e.g. the VMAT2 gene (Kluger, 2004)), and so on (Andew Newberg, d’Aquile, & Rause, 2001; Andrew Newberg & Waldman, 2009). The epitome of the academic misconception and hostility is expressed by Richard Dawkins who combines misconception with the ugly, vituperative, rhetoric of a dogmatic, aging curmudgeon in order to produce a spiteful and hateful spew (Dawkins, 2006a) that should be embarrassing to any scholar who thinks reasonable, open minded inquiry is something to aim for. Indeed, the closed minded way that many sociologists approach religion and spirituality is something to be embarrassed about. Bellah (1970, p. 92), in support of a more open minded inquiry, accuses scientists of a “cognitive bias” that has led them to engage in acts of symbolic and consequential reductionism that has profoundly undermined their ability to understand religion and religious experience. I have to agree, especially in regards to sociology. Of all the academic disciplines in the world, the last one that should be accused of reductionism is sociology.

Noting sociological hostility towards religion and religious experience, I would nevertheless not want to downplay criticisms of religion and religious institutions. In the name of religion, all sorts of violence has been perpetrated (Ellens, 2001). People have abused children (Dawkins, 2006b), drank cool aid, gone on crusades, and even slow roasted native populations when they needed to use them as slaves. This we cannot deny. But, religion itself is but a foil. Violent people use religion as a justification for violence, that is true. Violent people also use politics, race, and even science to justify their violence (Morena, 2000; Washington, 2008). You cannot single out religion in this regard and in any case, of all the institutional and material props for violence that there are, religious experience at least doesn’t seem to be the best one to use. Sure, some religions may be used in an opportunistic fashion to prop up venal economic, social, and political interests (Sharp, 2013), but when you look closer you find that authentic spiritual/religious experience isn’t compatible with venal economic or political interests. There is, “something more” buried deep within the spirituality and religion of this planet, something at the core, a “reality towards which religious [sic] point” (Cohn & Markides, 2013: p. 36) that belies attempts at venal abuse. [1]This “something more” is neither bad, nor primitive, nor irrational, nor stupid, nor (it should be strongly emphasized) unworthy of scholarly attention. In fact, quite the contrary is true. Whatever it is that is there requires a closer look, right now. Recently, a United Nations Panel on Climate change issued a remarkable, almost doomsday like report. Climate change is bad and getting worse. According to the report, there are no mitigating factors, no hope on the horizon, and not much we can do except “deal with it.” Icecaps are melting and threatening coastal regions, oceans are becoming acidic and killing fish, coral reefs are dying, creatures are migrating to (and from) the poles, and the weather gets crazier every year. In the immediate future, we are looking at increased injury and death as the result of violent weather, public health catastrophes as people start to migrate from uninhabitable areas, and interruptions in the food supply. Down the road (actually it is happening right now), we’ll see increasingly violent conflict over land and resources and even starvation. Of course, people with money will be buffered from the worst of it, for a while. They will be able to relocate to higher ground and they will have money to purchase even the most expensive food, but poor people, esp. those in developing nations, won’t fare so well. Like victims in Phuket, the poor don’t have resources to build better houses, move to higher ground, or buy expensive food as supplies become short. However, it is noteworthy that even the über rich see the disaster coming and aren’t necessarily optimistic about the future.[2] In the context of expanding global social, psychological, political, economic, and ecological crises, it is this authors’ contention that deep within the authentically mystical core of religion is a transformative spirituality that is (at least part of) the solution to the deepening crises of our time.

The Mystical Core?

At this point I imagine that incredulity is the response of some readers. The anti-spiritual programming that many of us are exposed to is quite strong. There is nothing in mystical experience or religious experience, we are told, to warrant significant attention. Indeed, smart people don’t give it a second go (Berger, 1999, p. 4). If you are an academic, you can’t even talk about it and if you do, if your scholarly interest outweighs your fear of persecution, you have to engage in requisite denials. You are interested, but “not involved” you will say. You find something worth looking at, but quickly add you are not looking for “God.” There may be something to talk about, but enlightenment is not what you seek. Like Peter in the bible story, you deny your interest and affiliation out of fear of censure and violence. And note, it is not an unreasonable fear. Rupert Sheldrake was excommunicated from science, and editors of the esteemed journal Nature called for the burning of his books(!), when he presented theories outside the canonical materialism of natural science (Freeman, 2005).

Given the state of the world, it is time we put aside a fear of open inquiry. So, I will say it directly. There is something in mystical experience/religious experience worth looking at. Indeed, we may go so far as to say there is something in mystical experience that is socially and politically transformative. It is not so outrageous a claim. A few scholars have been interested in the powerful and transformative nature of religious/mystical experience for a long time. Abraham Maslow, founder of both the Humanist and Existential schools of Psychology, wrote:

The very beginning, the intrinsic core, the essence, the universal nucleus of every known high religion, (unless Confucianism is also called a religion), has been the private, lonely, personal illumination, revelation, or ecstasy of some acutely sensitive prophet or seer. The high religions call themselves revealed religions and each of them tend to rest its validity, its function, and its right to exist on the codification and the communication of this original mystic experience or revelation from the lonely prophet to the mass of human beings in general. (A. H. Maslow, 2012, p. 339)

Similarly, R. Bucke, a Canadian medical doctor and graduate of the McGill medical school, speaks of “men whose ‘spiritual eyes have been opened,’ i.e. who have had mystical experiences, a ‘new birth’, have risen to a higher spiritual place and who have ‘seen’.” He notes that “the better known members of this group…have created all the great religions, beginning with Taoism and Buddhism, and speaking generally, have created, through religion and literature, modern civilization (Bucke, 2009/1929, p. 11). Bucke suggests that the root cause of all the world’s religions and even modern civilization lies in the experiences of the mystic. Such a statement will certainly seem hyperbolic to many, but keep in mind that Bucke was a medical doctor and not an unwitting man. Nor, it should be noted, was he the only person to make such claims. Roberts (2014, p. 7) says that “…mystical experiences…have been a central part of theology, philosophy, and religious practice throughout the history of religion.” Similarly, Happold (1963, p. 18) says, “To speak more generally, mysticism has its fount in what is the raw material of all religion and is also the inspiration of much philosophy, poetry, art, and music…”And as Stace (1960b, p. 14) demonstrates, respectable scholars have gone much farther than Bucke:

If anyone thinks that a kind of consciousness without sensations, images, or thoughts, because it is totally unimaginable and inconceivable to most of us, cannot exist, surely he is being very stupid. He supposes that the possibilities of this vast universe are confined to what can be imagined and understood by the brains of average human insects that crawl on a minute speck of dust floating in illimitable space.

And once again, this is not delusion. When one digs deep enough, one finds that many significant cultural figures and even some significant scientific ones (Wilber, 2001), have had mystical experiences. For example, Parmar (2002) notes that both The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost are based on the spiritual/mystical experiences of the authors. William Blake, respected English illustrator and poet, reveals his own mysticism in letters to his friend Thomas Butts (Blake, 1906a, 1906b, 1906c, 1906d, 1906e). Interestingly enough, Walt Whitman did not hide his mystical experiences (Whitman, 2007). Even socialists, as it turns out, have their unrepentant mystics (Sime, 1916) and their mystical socialist texts (Edward Carpenter, 1896). Indeed, Edward Carpenter, who was an important early figure in the emergence of socialism (Rowbotham, 1980, 2008) was a poet, writer, and mystic. He was a left wing pacifist, an LGBT[3] activist way before his time, and it must be strongly emphasized, the person who coined the term cosmic consciousness! Carpenter was not a stupid man or a shill of the ruling classes by any means, yet he was a mystic and he did write about God, consciousness, creation, and the capitalist social disease (E. Carpenter, 1889; Edward Carpenter, 1896; Edward. Carpenter, 1921).

Indeed, isn’t religion, above all—before it is doctrine and morality, rites and institutions—religious experience. Under the influence of Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher in nineteenth century Europe and philosopher-psychologist William James in early twentieth-century America, many Westerners have come out in support of the priority of religious experience. And isn’t religious experience in its highest form mystical experience, as in India, where it seems more at home than anywhere else? (Kung, Ess, von Stietencron, & Bechert, 1986, p. 168)

Clearly, while we can debate the concept of mystical experience and we can struggle with what it all means, we cannot deny the validity of the experience and we certainly cannot dismiss honest intellectual inquiry as “beyond the pale.” There is something here worth looking at.

What is Mystical Experience?

If the reader does not dismiss outright the validity of mystical experience as an object of sociological inquiry, then the next question becomes “what is mystical experience”? As this author points out (Sosteric, 2017), there are two ways to conceptualize mystical experience. One can view it as scientists view it, i.e. as an objective observer looking “at” the mystical experience itself; or, one can view it as the mystics themselves view it, as a subjective experience. Scientists who have looked “at” mystical experiences have, for the most part, seen mystical experience as a secondary manifestation of something unrelated to religious realities. That is, mystical experience is either a psychological function (sometimes seen as pathology and sometimes seen as adaptive), evolutionary imperative, neurological epiphenomenon, or reflection of human social structures. The scientists’ view is, however, quite different than the mystics view. Mystics themselves view their experience simply as union with “God” (Stace, 1960a, 1960b). Dionysius, the Areopagite, the Greek who coined the term mysticism, notes that a mystical experience is an “incomprehensible union with Him” (Vergote, 2003, p. 81). Similarly, Evelyn Underhill writes that a mystical experience is all about “…establishing [a] consciousness relation with the Absolute” (Underhill, 2002 (1911), p. 81). Finally, R.W.R. Inge (1860-1954), an Anglican priest and professor of divinity at Cambridge, writes:

Mysticism means communion with God; that is to say with a Being conceived as the supreme and ultimate reality. If what the mystics say of their experience is true, if they have really been in communion with the Holy Spirit of God, that is a fact of overwhelming importance, which must be taken into account when we attempt to understand God, the world, and ourselves.” (Inge, 2005, p. 8)

The mystics view seems simple enough to grasp. Mystical experience is a union with God. Of course, saying this is going to make a lot of people uncomfortable partly because some scholars, though not all (Ecklund, 2012; Ecklund & Long, 2011), reject the notion of God, but also because even if you don’t reject the notion, the term carries so much religious, spiritual, and even scientific baggage as to be entirely useless in academic inquiry. The scholarly indigestion around this simple term and definition is so bad that it is difficult to move this discussion forward on terms acceptable to a mystic. In order to avoid the baggage, some scholars have attempted to use different terms. For example, Underhill uses the term Reality with a capital “R” to describe the “thing” that mystics connect to (Underhill, 2002 (1911)). Similarly, Bucke (2009/1929) and Edward. Carpenter (1921) use the term Cosmic Consciousness. Happold (1963) says Ultimate Reality, Alighieri (1915: Canto 33, line 91) says Universal Form, Blake (1977) describes it as Imaginative Vision, and Sharp (2006) as the Fabric of Consciousness. Using a term different than “God” may ease resistance, but throwing a bunch of terms into the hat to try and assuage scholarly indigestion only adds to the Babylonian confusion. Rather than contribute to the confusion this paper simply accepts the mystic’s description at face value: a mystical experience is a connection with God. If the reader is uncomfortable with this simple, but ecologically valid, description, then at this stage simply empty the term of meaning. At this stage of the game we can say nothing about the nature, scope, purpose, or even ontological status of God; we just know that when mystics have an experience, this is what they say they connect to. This is our starting point and if we are going to develop an adequate understanding of mystical experience we cannot be turned from this point.

What Happens When You Have a Mystical Experience?

Now if, for the moment, we take for granted that mystical experience is the common core of authentic religion, and if we take for granted that a mystical experience is connection with a thing that we might call God, we raise many questions. What is God? How is “connection” (whatever that might be) facilitated? What happens when we connect? These are all very valid questions which have been addressed, to one degree or another, by scholars. Most of the work has, unfortunately, been done in psychology. Sociologists have expressed very limited, and very intermittent, interest (Rominger & Friedman, 2013).

While all the above questions are valid and worthy of attention, in this paper, we will put aside these many issues and instead focus specifically on what happens following a mystical experience. As it turns out, many things happen to an individual following a mystical experience. These things range anywhere from positive mental and emotional changes (Hood Jr, Hill, & Spilka, 2009), to new outlooks and renewed optimism, to spiritual emergency (Grof & Grof, 1989), and even psychosis! It is a mixed bag to be sure, but it is mostly positive. Most famously, Maslow’s research on peak experiences indicated that religious experiences are an indicator of psychological health (A. H. Maslow, 1964, 1969). Interestingly, links between spirituality and mental and physical health have been supported by a wealth of research (Hood Jr et al., 2009). Ellis, who was originally a huge critic of mystical experience (Ellis, 1988), has more recently moderated his claims and admitted the positive and potentially helpful nature of said mystical experience (Ellis, 2000).

As interesting as the positive psychological sequels of mystical experience might be, far more interesting, at least from a sociological perspective, is the potentially “transformative” nature of mystical experience. When an individual has a mystical experience, when an individual makes a connection to The Fabric of Consciousness, they are sometimes notably transformed. As Happold (1963, p. 39) notes:

Such experiences, when they happen to a man [sic], revolutionize his outlook, often change his life. He may carry on with his normal occupation as before. To his friends and acquaintances, he may seem to be the same as he always was. But in himself, he is changed. He feels that he has received a pure, direct vision of truth. Nothing can be the same again.

Note that these transformations are not impotent internal experiences necessarily kept to oneself. The transformation can be a little transformation, as for example the minor peak experiences researched by Abraham Maslow (A.H. Maslow, 1971; A. H. Maslow, 1994), or they can be fundamental political, intellectual, and moral changes affecting a “broad range of personal emotion, cognition, and behaviour,” (p. 453) what Miller (2004) describes as “Quantum Changes.” Indeed, Bucke thought that moral changes, what he called moral elevation, were a fundamental and distinctive characteristic of authentic mystical experience. Although subsequent researchers have ignored this key feature of mystical experience, likely for conservative political reasons (Jantzen, 1995), Bucke (2009/1929) noted it in the lives of many famous mystics, like Meister Eckhart, Jacob Bhoeme, and others. For Bucke, this moral elevation is a putting aside of the venal interests of greed, graft, power, and money, and a turn toward the collective good of humanity. Bucke is succinct about what he means by all this when he interprets the life experience of Jesus Christ.

Suddenly, instantaneously, the change came, and this young man felt and knew within himself the seemingly illimitable spiritual force through the exercise of which almost anything might be accomplished. How was it to be used? To gain what end? Power? Wealth? Fame? Jesus quickly decided, as these men all decide, that the power must be used for the benefit of the race. Why should he, why should they all, decide in this sense? Because the moral elevation, which is a part of Cosmic Consciousness, will not permit any other decision (Bucke, 2009/1929, p. 101).

It does appear to be true. If you are Christian, you will know that Jesus Christ was not a fan of money, greed, or the economy. He threw the money lenders (i.e. bankers) out of the temple and told rich people that it was easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than get them into the Kingdom of God.[4] Similarly Gautama Buddha, in The Great Decease, rejected materialism, greed, and profit, as “lesser things” (Müller, 1881) and ended up advising his followers to seek the light. Miller (2004, pp. 457-458) provides an enlightening overview of the quantum change in values and priorities that sometimes comes from mystical experience.

Another major change that quantum changers reported was in their values and priorities. Looking back at their core values before their experience, men reported that their top priorities had been wealth, adventure, achievement, pleasure, and being respected; women said that family, independence, career, fitting in, and attractiveness had been most important. Both reported an abrupt and enduring shift in their most central values. After their quantum-change experience, men ranked spirituality, personal peace, family, God’s will, and honesty most highly; women valued growth, self-esteem, spirituality, happiness, and generosity. They were no longer possessed by their possessions. Often, characteristics that had been valued least became most important, and those that had ranked as highest priorities fell to the bottom. Spirituality, though not necessarily religion, became central for many. Relationships were changed, too. Quantum changers often seemed to lose their tolerance for superficial relationships. They wanted fewer and closer friendships. Some experienced sudden healing of and release from enmeshment or abuse they had experienced in childhood. Others found the courage to leave abusive relationships. For some, family and intimate relationships became more meaningful and peaceful. (pp. 457-8)

As noted, Miller calls the change “quantum change.” As a critical sociologist, I would call this a mystical “turn to the left” and I would state, unequivocally, that it is quite fascinating. Could it really be true? Could mystical experience lead to the emergence of humanist, even socialist values? Certainly, you find many examples in the biographical literature of the “turn to the left” that follows mystical experience. When Edward Carpenter (a famous socialist) had his mystical experience, he promptly threw off his academic shackles and went to work the land. He was a Cambridge Scholar of first class degree, but he threw it all away and became a tireless advocate and supporter of progressive politics. His transformation was dramatic.

He was involved in some of the earliest socialist groups, actively supporting workers in struggle. He was a leading proponent of utopian communes, a pioneer of the environmental movement. He was also something of a new-ager, into paganism and Eastern transcendentalism. He campaigned for women’s equality and produced groundbreaking material on homosexuality (Anon, 2009).

Other examples may be found that are even more striking and dramatic. Consider the story of Bartolome de las Casas. Bartolome de las Casas was a Spanish noble that lived during the sixteenth century. Like all Spanish nobles of that time, he was directly involved in colonization. In particular, he was involved in the colonization of Hispaniola and Cuba. Fiske (1902) provides a scathing indictment of Spanish colonizers with a particularly vitriolic condemnation of Las Casas whom he called the worst of the slave drivers. It seemed there were no boundaries around the horrors he would commit. As Fiske notes of the repressive practices of the colonizers:

Indians were slaughtered by the hundreds, burned alive, impaled on sharp stakes, torn to pieces by blood-hounds. In retaliation for the murder of a Spaniard, it was thought proper to call up fifty or sixty Indians and chop off their hands. Little children were flung into the water to drown with less concern than if they had been puppies. In the mingling of sacred ideas with the sheerest devilry, there was a grotesqueness fit for the pencil of Dore. Once, “in honor and reverence of Christ and his twelve Apostles,” they hanged thirteen Indians in a row at such a height that their toes could just touch the ground and then pricked them to death with their sword-points, taking care not to kill them quickly. At another time, when some old reprobate was broiling half a dozen Hideout Indians in a kind of cradle suspended over a slow fire, their shrieks awoke the Spanish captain who, in a neighboring hut, was taking his afternoon nap and he called out testily to the man to despatch those wretches at once and stop their noise. But this demon, determined not to be baulked of his enjoyment, only gagged the poor creatures (Fiske, 1902, pp. 265-266).

Las Casas, like all other nobility of the time, was part of this horror; but then, something remarkable happened. One day while in Cuba, Las Casas read from Ecclesiasticus (Sira 34: 21-23) the following words:

The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the wicked: neither is he pacified for sin by the multitude of sacrifices. The bread of the needy is their life; he that defraudeth him thereof is a man of blood. He that taketh away his neighbors’ living slayeth him; and he that defraudeth the laborer of his hire is a shedder of blood.

Upon reading these words, Las Casas has a classic mystical experience which was followed by an instantaneous transformation in his view of slavery and a subsequent shift in his political work. Fiske provides an account of what happened:

As he read these words, a light from heaven seemed to shine upon Las Casas. The scales fell from his eyes. He saw that the system of slavery was wrong in principle. The question whether you treated your slaves harshly or kindly did not go to the root of the matter. As soon as you took from the laborer his wages, the deadly sin was committed; the monstrous evil was inaugurated. There must be a stop put to this, said Las Casas. We have started wrong. Here, are vast countries which the Holy Church has given to the Spaniards in trust, that the heathen may be civilized and brought into the fold of Christ; and we have begun by making Hispaniola a hell. This thing must not be suffered to grow with the growth of Spanish conquest. There was but one remedy. The axe must be put to the root of the tree. Slavery must be abolished (Fiske, 1902, pp. 273-274).

Following his mystical revelations, Las Casas gave up his slaves, went into the pulpit, and preached against the practice. He also sold his worldly goods and went to visit the King of Spain, The Bishop Fonesca, and others. He became politically active and was a key figure and major influence (Fiske, 1902) not only in advocating against slavery, but in advocating for the idea that the slaves were human and had souls (Cels, 2014). Eventually, he went on to write a rather disturbing book on Spanish treatment of slaves where he provides a first-hand account of a horrific genocide that left Hispaniola a ruinous and desolate waste (Casas 1552).[5] This is a far cry from the colonizing demon that initially stepped foot on Cuban soil!

A turn to the left and a call to action

At this point, the obvious and pressing question is, how can an experience of a “light from heaven” yield such a powerful and transformative outcome? The question is not so easy to answer, especially if you are a sociologist.  Sociology has, for the most part, ignored mystical experience. Aside from one or two early examples (Bourque, 1969; Bourque & Back, 1971; Greeley, 1975; Tiryakian, 1972; Truzzi, 1974), sociologists have paid almost no attention to it. Simmel (1906) attempted to establish a sociology of secret societies, Tiryakian (1972) and Truzzi (1974) attempted to move us “toward a sociology of esoteric culture”, Hess (2007) has examined in some detail spiritism, and Bourque (1969) examined mystical experience as such, but by and large, sociologists have been silent. Focusing specifically on the highly personalized experience of mysticism, Garrett (1975, p. 206) notes: “the concept of mysticism has mainly experienced wholehearted neglect at the hands of sociological investigators….” He says that sociology has had a “parochial—concentration on ecclesiastic institutions” (Garret, 1975: 220) and that, as a result, there has been an absolute neglect of inner experience. Even psychology and psychiatry, two disciplines that should be more involved in a focused inquiry into these fascinating experiences, has displayed a “surprising” neglect (Cook, 2004). Those that have commented have generally reduced these experiences to psychological or more recently neurological (Andew Newberg et al., 2001; Andrew Newberg & Waldman, 2009) epiphenomenon. But, how do psychological defense mechanisms or evolutionary adaptability explain powerful and transformative experiences that lead individuals away from successful social positions and towards political activism or a life of working the land? This is certainly a question that needs to be addressed, but space limitations and the need to emphasize the fact that “authentic” mystical experience sometimes seems to drive an action-oriented “turn to the left” requires us to put this aside for now. Here, we will simply state that people who have a mystical experience sometimes turn to the left and take up action. This is a moderate position and should not be controversial. Others go further and note a radical, even revolutionary, tone to most authentic mystical teachings. For example, of the Sermon on the Mount, Happold (1963, p. 102) writes:

The Sermon on the Mount is neither impractical idealism, nor a collection of unlivable moral precepts. It is a superb analysis of right action in the light of things as they really are and not as they appear to be. It is an expression of the mysticism of action.

Similarly, Harvey (1998) writes of connection with “the fire” (i.e. the Fabric):

At the core of Christ’s enterprise is an experience of this fire and the revolutionary passion of charity that blazes from it. This passion, as Christ knew it and lived it, cannot rest until it has burnt down all the divisions that separate one human heart from another and so from reality….no dogma, however hallowed, that keeps oppression of any kind alive can withstand the onslaught of its flame. All of human experience, personal and political, is arraigned and exposed by it. It demands of everyone who approaches it a loving and humble submission to its fierce, mind and heart shattering power and a commitment to enact it laws of radical compassion and hunger for justice in every arena. Its aim is the irradiation of all life with holy and vibrant energy and truth so that as many beings as possible can live here on earth and in the body in a direct relationship with God, each other, and nature, in what Saint Paul unforgettably calls “the glorious liberty of the Children of God.”

A relatively unknown, but nevertheless important medieval mystic by the name of Richard of St. Victor wrote action into the very substance of the mystic’s experience and life. He noted that there were four degrees of ascending spirituality of connection with God. Notably, the last degree, the one that follows all others, is a return to the ground of Earth and progressive action in the name of God.

“In the first degree, God enters into the soul and she [sic] turns inward into herself. In the second, she ascends above herself and is lifted up to God. In the third, the soul, lifted up to God, passes over altogether into Him [sic]. In the fourth, the soul goes forth on God’s behalf and descends below herself.” Richard of St. Victor quoted in Harvey (1998)

Sanitation and Containment

At this point we are in a bit of a quandary. If mystical experience leads us to “turn left,” if authentic connection with God means we are suddenly more interested in political, economic, and even social justice, if the highest connection to God means grounded action in the world, the question must become, why did Karl Marx dismiss religion as mere opiate and why have other sociologists and scientists not picked up on this with more force? The answer to that is simply because powerful people have worked against our realization of this important aspect of spiritual experience. We have been kept away from it, and for good reason. If what I am saying here is true, then authentic mystical experience has profound political and economic implications, implications which would not be welcome by the elites of any culture in any epoch. The Powers That Be (PTB), whomever they happen to be in any particular epoch, would not be sympathetic to authentic mystical experience, nor would it be something they would want to encourage interest and inquiry into. It is not unreasonable to suggest that too many people having too many authentic mystical connections would lead to too great of pressure to transform the world. It is a reasonable concern, especially since it is possible to produce mystical experience consistently and efficiently through entheogen based interventions (Ellens, 2014). In this context it is certainly reasonable to hypothesize that the PTB, recognizing the revolutionary (and it should be noted political) potential inherent in mystical experience, engage in active suppression. This is exactly what Harvey suggests. As Harvey notes of the Christian church:

Many forces, even within the “Christian” world, block the unleashing of this “glorious liberty.” Anyone who comes to feel even a small spark of the heat of this fire may look in vain to find any of its truth in the churches that claim to keep it alive. Fundamentalism of any kind is a misconception to its adoration of freedom and its all-embracing love of all beings and all creation; the narrow judgmental ethics that disfigure all denominations of Christianity represent precisely that separation that Christ himself wanted to end forever. Most Western seekers are refugees from hypocritical, patriarchal, misogynistic, and homophobic versions of Christ’s message that are tantamount to perverse, even demonic betrayals of it. The great mystical treasures of all the Christian traditions have been largely ignored for centuries, even in the monastic institutions that might have kept them alive (Harvey, 1998).

Harvey is correct, but not as forceful or accusatory as he may justifiably be. Jantzen (1995) provides a detailed analysis of the history of Western Christian mysticism, showing how initially the Church, and later academics, contained the revolutionary implications of mystical connection within the confines of first the structures and restrictions of the Church, and later the boundaries of acceptable academic conceptualization and discourse. In the case of the Church, the containment involves restricting access to the revolutionary teachings and revising and restricting concepts in order to tame down their transformative implications. And the Church certainly did this from the very start. The Catholic Church, for example, is founded upon the selection of a small subset of available gospels, acts, and epistles. Elite members of the Church, headed up by the powerful bishop of Alexandria, stamped the canonical gospels at the Synod of Hippo (Ehrman, 2007). They subsequently destroyed other available texts (Bock, 2006), continued to edit and revise remaining texts down through the centuries (Ehrman, 2003, 2007), and restricted mass access to the teachings for over a thousand years (Ehrman, 2007; Starr, 2013). They even went so far as to burn those who tried to put the bible into the hands of the people. Starr (2013, p. 162) summarizes.

Throughout the Middle Ages the Church went to great extremes to keep the Bible out of the hands of common people. Typical of prohibitions issues by the Church is the edict from the Council of Tarragona in 1234 that ‘ordered all vernacular versions to be brought to the Bishop to be burned.’ The 1408 Constitution of Oxford, England, strictly forbade the translation of the Bible in the native tongue. These restrictions were in line with a long tradition in Christianity of banning translations in native languages that extended into the sixteenth century and beyond. The ban on translations effectively took the Bible away from the populace, since few, if any commoners, could read Latin.

In my view, the Church did this because they were afraid of the transformative potential of the teachings, a fear that can be traced back to the very birth of the Messianic Christ who frightened the PTB so much that, according to the Gospel of Mathew, they ordered the mass murder of all newborn males at news that the Messiah had been born (Starr, 2013, p. 185). If that horrendously violent act doesn’t betray morbid fear of the liberating and transformative impact of mystical teachings, nothing does.

What is left of the transformative teachings of Christ after the Church sanitized and sterilized available scriptures may certainly not be of interest to sociologists, being as that it has been watered down and made resonate with elite priorities and activities, but we (and by “we” I mean scholars) are turned away in other ways as well. As noted, containment of the mystical teachings can involve physically restricting access to texts, doctrinal restrictions, and even torturing and burning; but, it can also involve more academic approaches. For example, in order to contain mysticism conceptually, mystical experience may defined in a way that excludes from the category of mystic “any who are threatening to… authority” (Jantzen, 1995, p. 14). This “sanitation” goes all the way back to Pythagoras (privileged member of the Greek slave society) and involves redefining mystical experience as an overly intellectualized, rational, “male” experience (an experience epitomized and idolized by the “pure conscious event” of Forman (1986)). This definition excludes the oppressed and (notably) female experience from consideration (Jantzen, 1995). Similarly, texts (if they cannot be destroyed) may be split into an exoteric or literal meaning, and an esoteric or hidden meaning. The hidden meaning then becomes accessible only to the “chosen” few, i.e. those who enter into elite monasteries, academies, and privileged private “lodges.” In this way, the disempowered and disenfranchised are excluded from learning about, talking about, and encouraging mystical experience, an experience that may lead them to become “problems” for the ruling elites. Finally, there is a process of misdirection, whereby the attention of mystics and potential mystics is refocused on mystically vacuous institutional study and impotent ritual and sacrament rather than authentic mystical experience (Jantzen, 1995)—the “parochial concentration on ecclesiastic institutions” already noted. Thus, instead of seeking out authentic mystical experience, we are led to kneel in pews and “drink the blood” of Christ. Bender (2010) and Jantzen point out how the white, male definition of mystical experience as a privatized, ineffable, highly personalized psychological experience has sanitized its revolutionary potential and turned mystical experience into a modern, mystical anesthetic. As Jantzen (1995, p. 346) notes:

The privatized, subjective ineffable mysticism of William James and his followers is open to women as well as to men, but it plays directly into the hands of modern bourgeois political and gender assumptions. It keeps God (and women) safely out of politics and the public realm, it allows mysticism to flourish as a secret inner life while those who nurture such an inner life can generally be counted on to prop up rather than to challenge the status quo of their workplaces, their gender roles, and the political systems by which they are governed since their anxieties and angers will be allayed in the privacy of their own hearts’ search for peace and tranquility.

Certainly, my own work in this area supports this sanitation and containment hypothesis. The Tarot deck, which some take to be a magical mystical tool of spiritual transformation, is really nothing more than an ideological prop for capitalist ideology and capitalist social relations. As I demonstrate, the Freemasons took a relatively innocuous pictorial Tarot deck, wrote elite ideology onto the deck, and subsequently turned it into an ideological weapon (Sosteric, 2014). Freemasons, in essence, created a tool that shapes and contains mystical experience, turns it away from its revolutionary roots, and puts it in a form more comfortable for the status quo. Once again, this is a violation of the core nature and content of mystical experience.

Other examples of containment can be found. The new age movement itself may be viewed as an attempt to contain mysticism from the start. The New age movement originated in the “theosophical” work of Madame Blavatsky (Lachman, 2012),[6] who was herself a member of the Russian nobility. Her work has all the hallmarks of an attempt to contain and misdirect. Her work is difficult to get through (obfuscation, distraction), is based on fabricated sources (just like the Freemasons work with Tarot), and doesn’t lead to direct mystical experience. Instead, it leads to reactionary politics and even racist expression. Indeed, her major works can be read as reactionary, proto-Nazi conceptualizations of race and privilege. And the containment goes on. Recent examples include The Secret and the Law of Attraction, which is a New Age philosophy that blames poverty on the individual, specifically their own “unconscious” blockages and “failure” to attract wealth, rather than the more economically and sociologically reasonable suggestion that it is the activities of elites which are causing the problems (Sharp, 2013). A remarkable expression of containment leading to reactionary politics is the striking display of mystical naiveté by Shirley MacLaine, an aging actress and longtime pundit of New Age spirituality, who recently claimed that Jews might actually have deserved the holocaust because of “sins” in their past lives (Langley, 2015). From the Catholic Church through Madam Blavatsky all the way to Shirley MacLaine and corporate spirituality (Carrette & King, 2008), we have come a long, long way from the transformative paths of this world’s authentic mystics.

In closing I would like to note that Jantzen sees the sanitation/containment process as a violation of experience. While she vacillates on admitting there may be an authentic mystical core, she does say that “…the preoccupation of modern philosophers with the alleged intense psychological states of consciousness is a serious distortion of what the mystics themselves desired or held important” (Jantzen, 1995, p. 7). That is certainly true. Speaking from my own personal mystical experiences,[7] a careful reading of mystical texts, and an open assessment of the work of people like Bucke and Edward Carpenter (to name only two), it is very clear that mystics themselves are less concerned with the sterile conceptualizations and violating abstractions of church and academia and more concerned with truth, justice, and liberation of the species. It is the transformative, liberatory potential of mystical experiences (and mystical teachers who exhort people to have mystical experiences of their own) which has motivated the sterilization and containment of mystical experience down through years in both Church and science.

Conclusion

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith.” Saint Francis of Assisi

The goal of this paper has not been to convince anybody of the nature or authenticity of mystical experience. You can believe it is a connection with God, a biological process rooted in evolutionary or psychological imperatives, a symbolic expression of our collective humanity, etc. For the purposes of this paper, the actual nature of mystical experience is irrelevant. The point here is to simply pique the readers’ interest and point out that there is more going on than meets the proverbial eye, and hopefully I have done that. In a world of polemical and misinformed rejections of spirituality where scholars simply reject, reduce, and/or marginalize, we, and by “we” I mean people who are interested in open scientific inquiry of spiritual phenomenon, or we who are concerned about the social, economic, and environmental train wreck just around the corner, need to take a step back and take a second look. We need to question our knee jerk rejection of spirituality and “…refocus on the concerns vital to the mystics themselves which have been suppressed by their would-be interpreters. Not the least of these concerns is for political and social justice, including gender justice” (Jantzen, 1995, p. 22). There is something important going on in the realm of mystical experience and it is important that we not let the sanitizers have control of the inquiry.

Whatever is going on in the realm of mystical experience, it is important we look. That something it is probably the missing piece to puzzles that many scholars do not even know exist. This piece may explain why secularism has failed and also why fundamentalist right wing alternatives have grown to such global power and force (Butler, 2006). It may also help with a revitalization of the left. Butler (2006) notes that spirituality is a big deal for the vast majority of people on this planet. However, despite it being a big deal, the left has failed to properly understand, honor, and appreciate it. We all know why this is. Ever since Marx declared religion to be an opiate, we (and by “we” I mean the arrogant folks on the side of the left) have believed that we are “in possession of a truth superior to that of religion” (Bellah, 1970, p. 91). As a result, we have not bothered to take a closer look and, perhaps worse, derisively dismiss those who bother to do so. But, this has been a mistake. Indeed, it is an abdication of responsibility. Our refusal to take this area seriously has played directly into the hands of social class elites who have engaged in a centuries long sanitization of mystical experience. The result is not only that we have left a power vacuum that the right has been able to move in and fill (Butler, 2006), but also that we have consigned ourselves to a basic irrelevance to the people we seek to politicize and uplift. By ignoring mystical experience, we exclude a critical area of authentic human experience; by doing so we declare ourselves useless and redundant. Who is going to listen to us when we are so clearly clueless about something so important and pervasive as mystical and religious experience? The answer is nobody and the reactionary right knows it and exploits our dismissive arrogance (Butler, 2006).

At this point, we can either continue in our soap box rejection or put aside our bias and take a closer look. I would argue that we have to step down off our soap box and take a closer look at spirituality and religious experience, specifically with a view towards developing a critical/Marxist spirituality. We need to do this not only because, as (Lundskow, 2005) notes, Marxism and critical theory face extinction by irrelevance, but also because the world needs a revolution, and badly. As Canty (2014) notes, the world faces a dramatic unraveling of the human and planetary systems. A recent editorial in the Monthly Review acknowledges the major global crises and calls for fundamental revolutionary change.

Indeed, so great is the epochal crisis of our time; encompassing both the economic and ecological crises, that nothing but a world revolution is likely to save humanity (and countless others among the earths’ species) from a worsening series of catastrophes (Editorial, 2014).

The editors go on say that “Real revolutionary transformations will emerge most readily today, as has been the case for more than a century, out of struggles in the periphery of the capitalist system where the material conditions that people must confront are more severe due to centuries of imperialist exploitation — compounded now by the fact that climate change is hitting the global South the hardest.” I would argue that this is not the case. While the periphery may rise up, the technology and violent capability of the center can easily put down any uprising that may occur. What is actually needed is a global transformation at the center, and the periphery. And by this I do not mean at the center of imperialist power so much as I do the center of the human heart. What is needed is a technology of interpersonal transformation, a technology of spiritual transformation, that is systematic, professional, and that self-consciously addresses the question raised by this paper, can authentic mystical experiences induce progressive change within the heart and mind of the individual. If a single mystical experience is enough to transform a violent colonizer like Las Casas, what might a properly developed and conceptualized, progressive and scientifically grounded, technology of mystical experience and exploration be able to accomplish? Is it too unreasonable to say that poor and rich may be transformed in the process? I think so. Las Casas was rich and he was transformed, and others were as well. And if the reader continues to resist I simply ask, “how do you know?” Most academics have not taken the mystical core seriously, and those who have, have participated in its sanitation; so, how do you know what is possible here? It is reasonable to suggest that there is something here worth looking at? As Harvey notes:

There is nothing more important… for the future of the planet — than an authentic and unsparing recovery of the full range, power, and glory of the Christian mystical tradition. Without such a recovery, the spiritual life of the West will continue to be a superficial, narcissistic, and sometimes lethal mixture of a watered-down or fanatical pseudo-Christianity; hardly understood “Eastern” metaphysics and regressive occultism — and the great radical potential of such a renaissance will go unlived and unenacted with disastrous consequences for every human being and for all of nature.

While I would disagree with Harvey only on the stipulation that we need to recover “Christian mystical tradition”, (there are lots of mystical traditions in the East and West), I would agree that mystical experience is critical. Is it not hyperbole to suggest that it is authentic mystical experience that may make the difference between a violent descent into political and environmental chaos, and the transformation of the world? Whether one agrees with this statement or not, we certainly need to take a closer look. We, and by “we” I mean the “progressive” left, have been too busy holding our noses and turning our heads to adequately assess. To be sure, it may be true that a closer examination of mystical experience reveals that there is a rotten core, but I do not think so. It has long been known that authentic mystical experience is a scaffold for psychological and mental health and healing. I think that authentic mystical experience is also a scaffold for global transformation and as such, sociologists and others have to quit dismissing it and start taking it as deserving of serious scholarly attention.

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Endnotes

[1] In this essay I will use the phrases mystical experience, transcendent experience, and spiritual experience to refer to the same general experiential phenomenon that I conceive of as “authentic connection” to The Fabric of Consciousness. For a definition of The Fabric of Consciousness, see (Sharp, 2006).

[2] As for example Robert Johnson of the Institute for New Economic Thinking suggests. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sriuwxwols8#t=258

[3] Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

[4] See Mathew 19: 23-24.

[5] If you are interested in Las Casas first-hand account and condemnation, you can read the book. It is available from Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20321

[6] Lachman actually makes the hyperbolic claim that “practically all modern occultism and esotericism emerged from the ample bosom of …HPB.” As a representative of the political interests of the elites, she was definitely influential/ But as I and other have demonstrated, elite interference in the mystical teachings of this planet originates in historical epochs far removed from her.

[7] I have to admit at this point that I am a professional sociologist and a professional mystic. Over a decade ago a series of powerful mystical experiences “broke open my head” and caused me to question what I would now view as the naïve materialism of modern science. I’m still working to understand, conceptualize, and provide an adequate and acceptable theorization of my experiences that honors both the realities of mystical experience, and the critical orientations and perspectives of science in general, and sociology in particular. This paper, which underlines and emphasizes the transformative potential of mystical experience, is a first stab in that direction. A subsequent invited paper entitled The Sociology of Mysticism to be published in the 2017 International Sociological Association Symposium on Sociology takes the conceptualization and theorization a step further.

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Word Count: 11639
Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 56.4
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 7.6
Average Words Per Sentence 8.9
Percentage Words with Three Syllables 20.2

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Cite as:

(Finaldraft) Dangerous Memories: Slavery, Mysticism, and Transformation.

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