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Friday July 1, 2005: Mysticism as Religious Deviance

          I’m back into listening to Teaching Company Tapes, this time a series by Professor Paul Root Wolpe called, ‘Explaining Social Deviance.’ I am struck by the comment that there can be no deviant behavior for an individual living alone on a desert island; the term deviance only has meaning as a social construct. As I listen to the tape, I find myself applying these ideas to organized world religions, especially the fundamentalist groups now becoming more politically powerful. I know these various religious sects (political factions) focus heavily on group conformity. Where do I stand?

          I’m a spiritual maverick, unable to comfortably rest within any traditional religious system. My approach to the divine could easily be labeled deviant. How many other mystics are in the same position? I wonder if the more fundamentalist groups would ever be able to see mystic deviance as a positive element inherent in spiritual life, or if mysticism would merely be seen as a challenge and threat to orthodoxy.

         I see now ways that deviance may actually help society. The study of Functionalism (a macro theory of deviance) was first put forth by Emile Durkeim. Determination of deviance is not a pro-active definition of commonly held group values but a reaction, the realization that some action has gone beyond the group boundaries of acceptable behavior. The labeling of a negative action as deviant serves to both outrage society and to unify it. According to Professor Wolpe, the functionalist theory sees deviance as the means by which "the moral sense can be debated, defined, redefined, and reinforced."

         The boundaries drawn by any group shift and change over time. I liked the adjective Wolpe used – "shimmering" – because even in a society that defines moral issues in terms of black and white, members’ reactions will waver when an individual action approaches the edge of the group’s moral boundaries. The mixture of uneasy acceptance and disapproval will lead to debates within the group, and Durkeim saw that as a positive element of communal living.

         Mystics walk a fine line. Their accounts of inner experiences are sometimes socially defined and accepted as a genuine and personal religious experience, serving as proof of the living power of religious faith. These are the good times, and the mystic can relax and enjoy sharing inner experiences. (I’m grateful to be living in this liberal environment.)

         Yet, history teaches us that public attitudes and social norms continually swing between opposing belief systems. I may currently see individuals quite comfortable in defining their beliefs as ‘spiritual, but not necessarily religious,’ but I can’t help looking at the rise in power of various religious fundamentalists, wondering if public acceptance will continue through the remainder of my life, through the lifetime of my children. How often in history have mystical accounts been condemned as heresy?

         Orthodox religions know there must be the opportunity for people to reach toward the divine; yet with each personal experience there is a risk of the individual turning from group authority. Have a powerful spiritual insight, and truth becomes intimate, real enough to challenge the claims of religious authority. Too many mystics, too much spiritual freedom, and religion organizations find themselves dividing into splinter groups. It’s dangerous for any religion to tolerate too much deviance.

        Yet, part of Durkeim’s theory focused on society’s need to generate a certain amount of deviance, just for the sake of survival. Deviation is not just an issue of negative or criminal behavior – innovators deviate from the group norm and are essential to the healthy growth of society. Wolpe pointed out that Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed were all considered deviants by the established systems of their time.

          Perhaps this is the social power of the mystic. They remind orthodox religions that religious truths must be taken into the heart and lived, not as an order or commandment but as a deep emotional commitment to some greater power. They remind us that spiritual truths are not discovered once and for all; that as humanity grows in its understanding there may be new and better ways to interpret or express spiritual truths.

        When the mystic searches old truths in traditional books, he or she looks beyond the words written on the page. The more words that get wrapped about a truth, the farther removed is the emotional impact and reality, the harder it is to grasp and hold spiritual truth within the heart. To personally open the heart over and over to discovering inner inspiration not only keeps the truth sparkling and dancing before the inner eyes, but powerfully transforms the mystic’s outer life. The goal of mysticism is not to move with solemn determination while following socially acceptable actions, but to flow forward through the world with divine love and compassion for all of creation.

         We will never see a world made up of only mystics. A mystic wants to reach to the heavens, while most people want their feet planted firmly on the ground. Perhaps mystics will always be the fringe element of their respective religious groups. I just hope that, rather than orthodoxy fearing the lack of conformity, it will embrace the advantages of diversity.

Posted on Friday, July 1, 2005 at 05:15PM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | Comments4 Comments

Reader Comments (4)

I enjoyed your post. In the history of Xty mystics have often been regarded as deviant: they are alternately canonized and condemned, etc. The mystics we hear about in say, for example, the catholic tradition, are those who supported the institutional church, the sacraments and the role of the ordained priest (a hierarchical figure). There are plenty of mystics who never see the inside of a church, temple or mosque. There is always an issue for a mystic as to how they will fit in to their local society.
July 4, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterkaturi
I must admit that I see myself somewhat as a mystic wannabe, albeit by a very circuitous route. I started out with a traditional Catholic upbringing, entered the convent for a few years, left, met and married a divorced man, fell away from the church, raised a family and now....At around age 55 I started longing for more, longing for what I had before but deeper. So I got into meditation and a lot of reading. I have always been intrigued and a bit frightened of the concept of mysticism. But, here I am laying myself open and to whatever transpires.
July 15, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterNan
Some great thoughts. I really enjoyed this post. Thanks.
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