The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Secrecy
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The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Secrecy

Hugh B. Urban, Paul Christopher Johnson, Hugh B. Urban, Paul Christopher Johnson

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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Secrecy

Hugh B. Urban, Paul Christopher Johnson, Hugh B. Urban, Paul Christopher Johnson

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Secrecy is a central and integral component of all religious traditions. Not limited simply to religious groups that engage in clandestine activities such as hidden rites of initiation or terrorism, secrecy is inherent in the very fabric of religion itself. Its importance has perhaps never been more acutely relevant than in our own historical moment. In the wake of 9/11 and other acts of religious violence, we see the rise of invasive national security states that target religious minorities and pose profound challenges to the ideals of privacy and religious freedom, accompanied by the resistance by many communities to such efforts. As such, questions of secrecy, privacy, surveillance, and security are among the most central and contested issues of twenty-first century religious life.

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Secrecy is the definitive reference source for the key topics, problems, and debates in this crucial field and is the first collection of its kind. Comprising twenty-nine chapters by a team of international contributors, the Handbook is divided into five parts:

  • Configurations of Religious Secrecy: Conceptual and Comparative Frameworks
  • Secrecy as Religious Practice
  • Secrecy and the Politics of the Present
  • Secrecy and Social Resistance
  • Secrecy, Terrorism, and Surveillance.

This cutting-edge volume discusses secrecy in relation to major categories of religious experience and individual religious practices while also examining the transformations of secrecy in the modern period, including the rise of fraternal orders, the ongoing wars on terror, the rise of far-right white supremacist groups, increasing concerns over religious freedom and privacy, the role of the internet in the spread and surveillance of such groups, and the resistance to surveillance by many indigenous and diasporic communities.

The Routledge Handbook of Religion and Secrecy is essential reading for students and researchers in religious studies, comparative religion, new religious movements, and religion and politics. It will be equally central to debates in the related disciplines of sociology, anthropology, political science, security studies and cultural studies.

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PART IConfigurations of Religious Secrecy: Conceptual and Comparative Frameworks


Arthur Versluis
DOI: 10.4324/9781003014751-3
The term “mysticism” is used in a wide variety of ways in the contemporary world; it may be taken to mean visionary experiences, or “the irrational,” or any number of things. Thus it is useful to look at its origins. The word “mysticism” derives from the Greek mystikos (μυστικο′ς) meaning secret or esoteric path of the mysteries, and derives from mystes (μυ′στης), meaning an initiate into the mysteries, or more literally, one who has seen directly for himself or herself into the mysteries. Given its accumulated meanings over millennia, the word “mysticism” may be understood as referring to gnosis, meaning the direct cognition of a transcendent reality beyond the division of subject and object.
Defining mysticism in terms of gnosis, meaning “direct cognition of a transcendent reality beyond the division of subject and object,” has numerous advantages, not least because it makes clear that mysticism is a type of cognition. It also recognizes that this kind of cognition is beyond instrumentalizing discursive consciousness, but is understood as direct cognition of a “transcendent reality,” not limiting the term here except to say that it is “beyond the division of subject and object.” Additionally, this definition is broad enough to include both apophatic and visionary mysticism. The transcendence of subject and object can be understood as taking place on a continuum. The heart of this transcendence is known as via negativa, or apophatic experience, meaning the fundamental or primordial reality beyond any conceptual and sensory representation. But the same definition also holds for via positive or cataphatic visionary experiences in which the observing subject is not separate from the revealing object, but rather where the divine “other” reveals itself to “me” (Versluis 2017: 3–4).
Mysticism here is understood as deriving from the Platonic and Neoplatonic tradition, which flowed from pagan antiquity into Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, that is, in the main monotheisms. The term “mysticism” here is not applied to Asian or other religious traditions, including indigenous ones, even though the definition and the resulting model is internally consistent and could be applicable to, for instance, most forms of Buddhism or Hinduism. The reason is that the term “mysticism” has a long history specifically in the monotheistic traditions, and further, is specifically implicated in the monotheistic dynamics of esoteric/exoteric or mysticism/confessionalism.

Mysticism and Secrecy in Christianity

During its formative period, early Christianity included a range of figures and groups that could be described as mystical, but in contemporary scholarship largely are grouped under the term “Gnostic.” Of course, the category “Gnostic” has itself been subject to critique (Williams 1996) as “dubious.” If instead we view figures like Valentinus or Basilides or Nag Hammadi texts like the Gospel of Thomas in terms of mysticism, with variants of gnosis as a defining aspect, we can see significant continuity from early Christianity into later forms of Christian mysticism. Apocryphal sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas like [77] can be understood as referring to gnosis as union of subject and object: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.’” Likewise, the mystery of the bridal chamber in the Gospel of Philip (Robinson 1977: 150–151), or the series of paradoxes of The Thunder, Perfect Mind, or The Discourse on the Eighth and Ninth, all can be understood as expressions of an initiate’s movement from dualistic to non-dualistic consciousness, also termed gnosis.
One also finds in early Christianity among the Ante-Nicene Fathers a consistent denigration of mysticism and gnosis from a confessional perspective. Thus, authors like Tertullian and Irenaeus were unsparing in their ridicule and rejection of paganism, ancient Mystery traditions, and various figures today designated as Gnostic, but who might also be termed mystics. Of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Clement of Alexandria was the most open to the idea of an authentic Christian gnosis, but even in his case, the notion of an authentic Christian gnosis is predicated on inauthentic or false gnosis. The dynamic established by the Ante-Nicene Fathers of extolling confessional Christianity and denigrating mysticism was to continue, in various forms and degrees, through subsequent millennia, particularly in Western European forms of Christianity. This dynamic ensured that mysticism remained largely self-secret, that is, visible only to those who found their way to it.
April DeConick (2006) makes the point that in some scholarship concerning this early period, hermeneutics and religious experience are opposed to one another, whereas it is more useful to see these as complementary. The experience of the sacred was supported by and to some extent transmitted via new revealed texts or apocalyptic literature that conveyed gnosis or the “mysteries” within early Christian and Jewish traditions. This literature sometimes involved “counter-cultural” or “counter-readings” of more canonical texts, and the counter-readings are what ensure its secrecy vis-à-vis more canonical traditions (DeConick 2016).
It is true that Christian mysticism, to the extent that it periodically emerged, owed much to the treatises under the name “Dionysius the Areopagite,” sometimes termed “Pseudo-Dionysius,” who probably lived in the fifth century A.D. Dionysius is a major point of contact between Platonism and Christianity. It is possible that Dionysius was a Platonist who translated Platonism into a Christian context when it became clear that pagan Platonism was not long to survive. Christian mysticism throughout its subsequent history only can be fully understood with reference to the seminal figure of Dionysius the Areopagite.
Essential to understanding this frame is the concept of via positiva. Dionysius discusses the via positiva, or way of images, in his Celestial Hierarchy. There, he discusses both how celestial beings can be described in material terms, and how images of beauty can draw us upward toward the archetypal or eternal being that they manifest to us (1987: 145–191). Through sacred symbols and images we can ascend in contemplation to the divine archetypes, and this ascent through images is sometimes termed “cataphatic mysticism.” The word “cataphatic” derives from the Greek cata- [to descend, or downward movement] and phanai, meaning to speak, or to reveal. Effectively, the cataphatic or via positiva forms of mysticism are affirmative in the sense that they offer an ascent through images, symbols, and words/conceptual analogies that “descend” from “above.” Visionary mysticism belongs in this category. The visionary, by seeing, also becomes that which he or she sees.
Likewise, Dionysius introduces the via negativa, or apophatic way of negation, observing in Mystical Theology that the mystic enters into the “darkness of unknowing,” whence all perfection of understanding is excluded, and the mystic is enwrapped in that which is altogether intangible, wholly absorbed in it that is beyond all; and going beyond reason, is united by his highest faculty to it that is wholly unknowable; thus by knowing nothing he knows that which is beyond his knowledge (1987: 133–142). Apophatic mysticism is not-seeing; it is the sheer transcendence of all dualities and concepts.
We do not have space here to discuss the full range of the Christian mystical tradition, but can point out that the Dionysian apophatic tradition is dominant in medieval figures like Meister Eckhart or Johannes Tauler, who assert the sheer transcendence of divine knowledge or gnosis. It is also visible in the English mystical tradition, most notably The Cloud of Unknowing, which is directly indebted to the Dionysian texts. It is not that these works or their authors were always under attack from confessional perspectives, though that was sometimes the case, as when Meister Eckhart was investigated for heresy; and certainly was the case with a great female apophatic mystic, Marguerite Porete (1993), author of Mirror of Simple Souls, who was burned at the stake for her perspective. It is rather that from the time of early Christianity onward, mysticism was always in tension with and subordinated by confessional and doctrinal forms of Christianity, and this dynamic meant that mysticism and mystical texts, whether anonymous or not, remained secret, that is, invisible (if not anathema) to the great majority of religious believers.
When we get to the early modern period, and the ascent of Protestantism, we find precisely the same dynamic, but as it were amplified. Thus the greatest of the early Protestant mystics, Jacob Boehme and John Pordage, were both subjected to censure by ecclesiastical authorities. Boehme, whose work includes both via positiva (cosmological) and via negativa (metaphysical) dimensions, was famously forbidden from publishing by his Lutheran pastor, and Pordage (himself a clergyman) was brought up on spurious charges in England (Versluis 1999).
From his first book, Aurora, onwards, Boehme warned the reader that “as a preface to this great Mystery, if he does not understand it, and yet longs for the meaning, or understanding of it, he should pray for enlightenment from the Holy Spirit from God.” For “without the illumination thereof, you will not understand this Mystery; for there is a strong lock and bar before it in the spirit of man that must first be unlocked and opened; and that, no one can do, for the Holy Spirit is the only key to it” (1986 [1612]: XIII.31). In other words, the Mystery (gnosis) is self-secret, meaning that while you can read the words, the hidden meaning remains elusive without its illuminative key that provides a different epistemological access than discursive consciousness.
In the works of these theosophic authors—beginning with Boehme, whose school is broadly termed “Christian theosophy,” and includes figures like Franz von Baader and numerous others—all of the themes we have discussed come together. There are two aspects to secrecy regarding their work, both essentially self-secret: first, that one cannot understand it rightly without the hidden key of the Holy Spirit; and second, that as a result their works as a whole remain even today self-secret. Their work is visible if one looks for it, but broadly speaking, it is invisible from the perspectives of all confessional forms of Protestantism and Catholicism, and often not even visible to most scholars of religion.
In the late twentieth century, some scholars advanced constructivist interpretations of Christian mysticism, arguing that mystical experience is socially determined and by extension, that gnosis as defined here (transcendence of subject and object) effectively does not exist. Examples include Grace Jantzen’s feminist and deconstructionist critique of Christian mysticism (1995), while others, for instance Richard Jones (2016), argue that recognizing social contexts of mystics does not require one to reject the transcendental or gnostic experiential accounts of the mystics themselves. From such a perspective, constructivist denigration of perennialism is based on a false dichotomy. Many of these scholarly arguments are centered in Christian mysticism, though some extend into mysticism more broadly.

Mysticism and Secrecy in Judaism

The circumstances of mysticism in Judaism, while still participating in the exoteric/esoteric tension visible in Christian forms of monotheism, are somewhat different. As Moshe Idel discusses at length, Jewish mysticism derives from a tradition of textual interpretation of exoteric texts, which are reinterpreted as containing layers of semi-secret or secret meanings (Idel 1995). In this regard, Jewish mysticism emerges from and is itself a highly discursive tradition, built around not only esoteric interpretations of exoteric texts, but also esoteric texts such as the Zohar. An example of the latter is the work of the medieval figure Abraham Abulafia, whose mystical practice was to attain mystical transport through permutations of letters and words. Idel puts it this way: “in its Biblical forms, Judaism is a rather exoteric and popular type of religiosity,” whereas “the religious esotericism in Rabbinic texts, and in those formulated in its immediate vicinity, or within some of its circles, like the Heikhalot literature, rotates around the transmission of secrets believed to be within texts” (Idel 1995: 312).
Of course, Platonism and Neoplatonism did influence Jewish mysticism, as Gershom Scholem and Moshe Idel pointed out, and as discussed at length in works such as Neoplatonism and Jewish Thought (Goodman 1992). Kabbalists developed various forms of speculative mysticism, some of which (for instance, Sabbatai Sevi) were regarded as apostatic or heretical. In some of those cases, arguably Kabbalah is subject to an orthodox/heterodox tension at least somewhat analogous to what we see with Catholic mysticism as regarded by the I...