The Perennial Cycle from Mysticism to Religion to Politics

What is the relationship between mysticism and religion? It is perhaps a cycle, which begins in mysticism and ends in fundamentalist dogmatic religion, and politics, where it begins again.

Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.

-Charles Pierre Péguy (1873-1914), also paraphrased by David Steindl-Rast, noting how every religion begins in mysticism and ends in politics.

I heard recently someone state that Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, re-instituted everything that Jesus abolished or “fulfilled,” bringing back law, doctrine, temple rituals, etc., and so he could not possibly be a true prophet because he acted contrary to the Christ, seemingly in the opposite direction. Therefore he must be a fraud.

I think there is some truth to this, but I think it fails to recognize a larger pattern, which is a cycle that repeats itself continually throughout history: the perennial cycle from mysticism to religion and back again.

I think David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, described this pattern quite eloquently in his seminal essay, which is also one of my all-time favorites, “The Mystical Core of Organized Religion.” In it he included this graphic, below, which sums up his theory nicely in a visual. I only wish that it had been drawn in a circle, to show the cycling pattern, going from heart to heart, from mysticism and returning to mysticism (update: I designed a new version here).

The pattern goes something like this:

  1. Someone has a mystical experience.
  2. That experience is full of truth, goodness, beauty, love, freedom, liberation, salvation, illumination, and peace, and the person rightly wants to share it with others.
  3. They interpret/translate their experience, giving it communicable meaning, which becomes the basis for doctrine, ethics, and ritual for their friends, which becomes a cult, which becomes a community, which becomes a religion/denomination/sect.
  4. And founder dies, and over time that doctrine, ethics, and ritual grows, is reinterpreted over and over again, becomes elaborate, outward, fixed, rigid, stale, empty, meaningless, egoic. It becomes political, and oppressive. It loses the fiery Spirit of the original founder’s mystical experience.
  5. It turns into dogmatism, legalism, and ritualism, which imprisons the people, and brings them to a breaking point.
  6. Someone in the community has a mystical experience. Rinse and repeat.

If we look carefully at history, I think we see this pattern repeated over and over again, in all the major religious traditions. Here are some examples, simplified for the sake of space:

  • Moses was a man who was born into slavery to the Egyptians. The imprisonment grows to impossible conditions, and Moses is compelled to flee. He has a mystical experience on Mount Sinai, where God speaks out of Spiritual Fire. Moses returns to his people to liberate them from their chains. He shares with them the good news of God. They follow him to their liberation, which becomes the Israelite nation, and he the “founder” of Judaism, a community, a religion. Moses gives them some very simple doctrines, ethics, and rituals to remember God by, and bind the community together. But this grows over time, adding more and more stipulations, hundreds of more commandments, becoming moralistic, and legalistic, and ritualistic. A new prison has been built, and they are ripe for a spiritual revolution.
  • Jesus was born into this state of the imprisonment in Judaism, not only in the strict fundamentalism of the religion, but also politically under the Romans rule, doubly imprisoned. Jesus goes into the wilderness, to John the Baptist, and learns of another way. He has a profound mystical experience at his “baptism” and experiences the heavens opened, and Spirit poured out. Jesus wants to share this Spirit with his people, the Jews, and so his ministry begins, giving them a simple “gospel” message of love and peace, liberating the Jewish Christians from the rigidity and complexity of the Judaism of their time. But Jesus died, and Christianity developed into its own separate religion. Over time this religion grew, and added numerous more stipulations, ideas, interpretations, and became fundamentalist and dogmatic, ushering in the Crusades, imperialism, etc. A new prison of hatred, violence, and egotism had been built, and they were ripe for a spiritual revolution.
  • Joseph Smith was born into this state of fundamentalism, of dogmatism, of certainty among all the different sects of Christianity, each thinking they had the “right” gospel, and all the others were wrong. They had reached a breaking point. Joseph went into the grove of trees, and prayed, and had a radical mystical experience of the First Vision (which I just recently retranslated here). He experienced love and joy and peace indescribable, and he rightly desired to share it with all of his friends and family, and so his ministry began. A community formed around him, and eventually a cult, and then a religion was organized. Joseph gave them simple instructions in the beginning, plain (interpreted) truths, direct experience, treasuring up all the truths of the world, liberating them from the dogmatic rigidity of the Christianity of his time. But Joseph died, and Mormonism developed into a religion, the majority in the LDS Church, adding many more interpretations, ideas, doctrines, commandments, stifling the freedom of the Spirit, eventually becoming fundamentalist and dogmatic, ushering in things like the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the racism against blacks, the misogyny against women, and the current war it is waging on LGBTQIA people. It has built a new prison of hatred, violence, egotism, dogmatism, moralism, judgement, intense and hypocritical piety, and it has become ripe for a spiritual revolution, which seems to beginning anew now in force as mystics arise from within the ranks, having their own experiences of the Divine, and saying that things are not right.

I think the same pattern can be seen in the stories of Siddhartha Gautama who originated Buddhism, Muhammad who originated Islam, John Calvin who originated Calvinism, John Wesley who originated Methodism, Ann Lee who originated the Shakers, Ellen White who originated the Seventh-Day Adventists, and numerous others. It happens again and again and again, and so spirituality schisms into innumerable sects through time, many branches, an evolution of spirituality in a great tree as we can see in these graphics:

Postmodernists will likely dismiss this kind of grand narrative, the “meta-narrative,” this seeing of a greater pattern. But seers see it. As Meister Eckhart, a prominent Christian mystic, once noted:

Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.

-Meister Eckhart

See my post about how contemplatives and mystical practitioners from the world’s major religions came together to speak the same language.

I think sort of historical patterning has been recognized in many areas of human culture, that history repeats itself, particularly when we forget it. We are compelled, perhaps condemned, to remember ourselves by repeating the same patterns that humanity has faced in the past, until we have the epiphany of “Aha! Now I remember.” We remember our Self. We return to the Source of all our religions, the Source of all spirituality, the Source of our Self, of Love, of Goodness, Truth, Beauty, of Freedom, of Peace, knowing our Self as One. This happens in the experience of God, that direct intuitive awareness of Ultimate Reality, the Absolute.

But then we fall out of that experience, out of that nondual communion, out of that infinite Love, and we forget again who we are. We forget our God within us. We forget we are all God! We become fragmented, divided, separate, refracted, as a prism refracts light into millions of colors. And this can be a beautiful thing, if each fragmentation is seen in its truth, as a relative lens on the Divine, but it can become a horror if only a particular strand are seen as the absolute Truth of the Divine, and each of the others is an abomination.

And so we go around and around in this eternal round, circumambulating the Divine, losing and finding, losing and finding, forgetting and remembering, falling asleep and waking up, Falling and being redeemed, being imprisoned in order to be liberated, becoming lost as the Prodigal Son and then returning to realize our “Father” once again, our Source, the One, having mystical experiences and forming new religions only to get lost again until new mysticism arises again and helps us to remember our Self, our Divine Self, our true nature in God or Ultimate Reality. My Mormon friends might recognize some of this pattern in the teaching of apostasy and restoration. Mormonism is not the only religion that has been “restored.” They are all “restorations,” until they are not, until they lose it, which they seem to inevitably do over time.

Again as David Steindl-Rast so well described in his essay:

Sad as it is, religion left to itself turns irreligious. 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 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.

And in another place he used the same analogy:

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. 

And this goes on indefinitely, one eternal round, one eternal return, one Hero’s Journey, and we are each that Hero, we are that Super Hero, that Christ Self, that Messiah, as it has been repeatedly encapsulated in nearly every mythology, religion, story, narrative, epic, tale, movie, legend, folklore, tradition, etc. Round and round we go, round the maypole, round the Tree of Life, round the Kaaba, round the Divine, round the altar, circling, circling, circling.

Will it ever end? Nobody knows. In God there is perhaps no beginning, and there is no end, because God transcends time itself. We are in time, and as long as we are in time, our Self will continue to be rebirthed into this cycling, this incarnation, this circling, this circumambulation, this samsara. But this is our lot, this is our cross, this is our suffering, this is existence, this is Life, this is God, this is Nirvana, and we are That.

Awake and Arise!

What do you think? Can we ever transcend this cycle as humanity, collectively awakening to our true condition, or is this Life itself?

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