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 Bokara, The 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:
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 Bokara, The 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?