Infographic—The Perennial Cycle of Religions: Mysticism to Politics v1.0

I created a graphic to better illustrate the evolution (or devolution) from mysticism to religion to politics, and back again, as originally modeled by David Steindl-Rast.

David Steindl-Rast OSB

A few days ago I wrote about the cycling that happens from the mystical experience to religion to politics, and back again. I was first introduced to this idea in a remarkable essay by David Steindl-Rast OSB, an American Catholic Benedictine monk who has worked for many years in interfaith dialogue. He wrote the essay back in 1989-90, which is entitled “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion.” I think it is a classic in the literature of the relationship between mysticism and religion.

In this essay Br. David articulates eloquently the process of how an initial radical mystical experience of light and love eventually can turn into a religion, and from there evolve (or devolve) into politics. He states,

…every religion seems to begin with mysticism and end up in politics.

Elsewhere he said similarly:

The religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion.

-David Steindl-Rast, Link TV, Lunch With BokaraThe Monk and the Rabbi, 2005 episode.

So how does this happen? I’ll let you read the essay. I highly recommend it; it may be my favorite essay of all time. Part of his essay was a diagram showing the general process, from the mystical experience itself of truth, goodness, and beauty, refracting through the mind into religious doctrine, ethics, and rituals, and then further fragmenting and devolving into the politics of dogmatism, legalism, and ritualism, after which another mystic arises and the process begins again, perhaps forming a new religion, and/or reforming the old one. He illustrated this process with this graphic:

It’s a good diagram, but have always thought it could be better, particularly showing the cyclical nature of the process. I am a designer, and so I redesigned it. Here is the result:

The Perennial Cycle of Religions: Mysticism to Politics, v1.0. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license. Click to enlarge.

I think this better illustrates this process, from the mystical outpouring of tremendous light and love in the heart of the mystic, through its formation into the structure of religious institutions and other organizations and communities, and from there over time towards dogmatic fundamentalism and politics in general, where it is ripe for mysticism to erupt again into new light.

This is not to say that politics is bad. We need politics to organize our society, but politics is often one of the most unenlightened activities of humanity, usually being the most far removed from the mystical source which forms and informs comm-unity itself. It is vital that mysticism informs politics, something which has perhaps been lacking in recent decades and centuries, as Fr. Richard Rohr is making a point of this week in his daily meditations. In 2018, Rohr addressed the topic of “from mysticism to politics” in the words of Wes Granberg-Michaelson.

As Rohr notes, “We Christians did not connect the inner [contemplative life] with the outer [collective social/political life]—which is a consequence of not going in deeply enough.” I have also recognized recently that our entire Western culture (not only politics, but our science, humanities, philosophy, etc.) may have evolved from the mystical intuitions of some of the early Greek philosophers who were also seers, such as Parmenides, Empedocles, Plato, and Plotinus (see the work of Peter Kingsley).

The quote at the center of the graphic Steindl-Rast may have been derived from an earlier Catholic mystic, Charles Pierre Péguy (1873-1914), whose quote was more expansive:

Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.

-Charles Péguy, Notre Jeunesse, 1909. Original french: “Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique.”

Steindl-Rast used the analogy of a volcano in his essay to help illustrate the emanating progression from mysticism to politics, which is why I included a volcano in the center of the graphic:

Once, in Hawaii, after I had been walking on still-hot volcanic rock, another image for this process occurred to me: the image not of water but of fire. The beginnings of the great religions were like the eruptions of a volcano. There was fire, there was heat, there was light: the light of mystical insight, freshly spelled out in a new teaching; the best of hearts aglow with commitment to a sharing community; and celebration, as fiery as new wine.

The light of doctrine, the glow of ethical commitment, and the fire of ritual celebration were expressions that gushed forth red hot from the depths of mystical consciousness. But, as that stream of lava flowed down the sides of the mountain, it began to cool off. The farther it got from its origins, the less it looked like fire; it turned into rock. Dogmatism, moralism, ritualism: all are layers of ash deposits and volcanic rock that separate us from the fiery magma deep down below.

But there are fissures and clefts in the igneous rock of the old lava flows; there are hot springs, fumaroles, and geysers; there are even occasional earthquakes and minor eruptions. These represent the great men and women who reformed and renewed [and restored] religious tradition from within. In one way or another, this is our task, too. Every religion has a mystical core. The challenge is to find access to it and to live in its power. In this sense, every generation of believers is challenged anew to make its religion truly religious.

-Steindl-Rast, David, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion,” New Realities Vol. X No. 4 (March/April 1990): 35-37.

He used the same analogy on another occasion:

The religions start from mysticism. There is no other way to start a religion. But, I compare this to a volcano that gushes forth… and then… the magma flows down the sides of the mountain and cools off. And when it reaches the bottom, it’s just rocks. You’d never guess that there was fire in it. So after a couple of hundred years… what was once alive is dead rock. Doctrine becomes doctrinaire. Morals become moralistic. Ritual becomes ritualistic. What do we do with it? We have to push through this crust and go to the fire that’s within it.

-David Steindl-Rast, Link TV, Lunch With BokaraThe Monk and the Rabbi, 2005 episode.

As I wrote in my previous article, I think we can show the general patterns of this process in the emergence of nearly every major religion, perhaps even in the formation of cultures and societies in general. They begin in mysticism, and they seem to always return to mysticism to be revived, reinvigorated, renewed, reformed, restored.

I hope this graphic is helpful in visualizing this process. It is, of course, a simplification of a complex system, but I think its generally informative. I may update it occasionally as I see how it may be improved. How do you think it could be improved?

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6 thoughts on “Infographic—The Perennial Cycle of Religions: Mysticism to Politics v1.0

  1. Fascinating ideas here, Bryce. I particularly like the metaphor of the volcano, and the lava cooling into rock. That captures so much of the problems of organized religion in terms of keeping the spirit alive, both of the religion and of the people involved. And your modified graphic is fantastic! About that, I just wonder how the dark night of the soul fits in. I will definitely seek out the original essay and read it, thanks for calling attention to it.

    1. Thank you, Walt. Very kind. I think Steindl-Rast’s essay is great. I think you’ll like it. The dark night of the soul is perhaps the part of the process where everything seems to break down. It is total chaos, darkness, loneliness, disconnection, unbelonging, a kind of prison, caught in our egotism. We are lost, ungrounded, broken. And yet it often seems that it is precisely through that darkness and suffering that the ego dies and the mystical experience breaks through again, and Light and Love are poured out.

  2. Bryce, I’ve been studying and thinking about your Perennial Cycle image. It’s so interesting. It reminds me of the Pride Cycle we were taught about through the Book of Mormon. It seems to me that the passing from the mystical experience to the Politics occurs rather rapidly, and that it is rare for a community as a whole to pass into the dark night of the soul to a mystical experience. It seems to be a very individual experience. Could it be that those who have the mystical experience are likened to those entering into the Celestial Kingdom? And it’s also interesting that the Church in its political state is necessary to propelling many into that dark night. And is it the goal that every person attain the mystical experience, or that others’ roles are just as important in providing the backdrop for others to have that experience? Do you predict whole communities having the mystical experience as portrayed in the Book of Mormon?

    1. Hi Amy. Thank you for your great thoughts and questions. Yes, it seems very similar to the “pride cycle” in the Book of Mormon, and that is perhaps no accident. It may be indicative of the same process of going from a selfless Love-based spirituality, to an ego-dominated fundamentalism/dogmatism. I agree that the process can happen quite rapidly. As Steindl-Rast notes, even within the span of two hundred years (as perhaps as happened in Mormonism), but even much faster than that. Wherever egos are dominant, that mystical Fire of the Spirit can be extinguished, and the dark night begins.

      I agree it is rare for an entire community to pass into the dark night and then into mystical experience. More often it is individuals within a “dark night” stage of community which have their hearts break wide open, and the Light pours in/out. And these seem to often cause a schism with the old religion. New wine can’t often be put into old bottles, and so new bottles must be created, new structures, new institutions. So these individuals become the religions’ “founders.”

      I do think those who experience the most unitive mystical experience are in actuality entering the Celestial Kingdom. They are not just enacting the drama as in the temple, but actually realizing the Celestial Kingdom in themself, or what Mormonism calls the “Celestial Kingdom.” Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God/Heaven.” Siddhartha Gautama called it “Nirvana.” There are many names for it, it seems.

      I agree that it is often precisely because a church or community has entered a political state/stage that propels individuals into the dark night, into suffering, and into the egoic breakdown and dissolution that results in a mystical experience of the Divine.

      I think every person is capable of attaining to this state of mystical oneness, even if it is only manifest through their great selfless Love. It doesn’t have to be fireworks like many ecstatic confessions seem to be. It can be a gradual process of self-transcendence and shedding of ego into Love. Love is the goal, however we get there. Amazingly, I think we already are there, but we don’t often know it (see Romans 8:38-39). Becoming aware of this all-encompassing eternal unconditional infinite pure Love then seems to be our aim, and I think should be the aim of every person.

      It seems to me that it is very rare that whole communities have a mystical experience as in the Book of Mormon. But there does seem to be precedence for this elsewhere, as in the Eleusinian Mysteries in Greece, where entire groups of people over thousands of years, partook in what seems to have been a mystical liturgy and awakening. There are perhaps even examples of entire congregations in early Mormonism which opened up radically to the Fire of the Spirit, and saw ecstatic Divine visions. This doesn’t seem possible to me unless there were entheogens involved to facilitate the shift of consciousness, as it seems there was in Eleusis, the kykeon.

      What do you think?

  3. Bryce – Your design takes Steindl-Rast’s concept to a new level and is much more engaging. Nice work. In my case, I am not called to inquire into organized religion that much – I’m more motivated by an understanding of personal spiritual formation and the psychology of spirituality. It feels to me that many of the elements of your design have relevance to personal spiritual growth, in addition to your comments above about the formation of religious institutions. I’d invite your further thoughts on that in a future essay. I’d also invite you to share along in the future a list of the most important spiritual essays that you have identified in your readings – certainly I agree that this Steindl-Rast essay is very significant.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Dave. I think that spirituality does not have to take the form of conventional organized religion, and actually I think it often starts out not wanting to a be religious at all. It seems these kinds of mystical outpourings begin as ecstatic expressions of Love, which then get embodied in communities, which then turn into religions. Religions are almost a later byproduct. Community does seem to often result, in one way or another. The mystical experience seems to often eject us from our isolated psychological self, or ego (or eject our ego from us), and compel us back into loving and compassionate relationship with others, realizing our deep common bond, even a shared metaphysical identity. Personal spiritual growth is definitely a part of all of that. Thank you for the recommendation to write more about that.

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