Mysticism East and West

Dr. Gisela Webb. HONS 3193. RELS 3493.


Description: This course is for students who have had some introductory work in world religions.  The goal will be to look closely at that dimension of religion called “mysticism,” or spirituality.  I will use the term, “mysticism” to mean those works produced within traditional religious milieu that focus on process—the experience-- of inner illumination and transformation of the individual. However, in the history of the field of comparative religious studies (roughly beginning at the turn of the twentieth), the term has had a variety of connotations (such as ‘the mysterious’, the occult, or weird, psychotic, irrational states of consciousness) and a variety of judgments made about the phenomenon of mysticism (such as claiming the Abrahamic versions to be ‘truer’ mysticism, or visa versa:  that Indian non-dualistic experience is a truer or higher form of mysticism). There have been those who have declared that ‘while all mystical experiences have different forms of expression, they all are speaking of the same experience.’ Other students of mysticism Other (particularly philosophers) say that people from different cultures, languages and religions cannot experience the ‘same’ reality. Nevertheless, there is a rich literature of primary and secondary sources on the subject. We will begin by looking at key works (by psychology and philosophy of religion) that discuss what mysticism is and what its characteristics are, (and we will look at the underlying historical and cultural world views represented in those descriptions). The question of investigation here will be “What is ‘mysticism’?” We will then look at examples of classical mystical literature produced by religions as well as some works that seem to be contemporary, non- traditional, examples of mystical literature. Primary sources to be studied will include musical, visual, poetic, and literary expressions of spiritual teaching and practice. My goal is that students will come from this course not only knowing the literature about mysticism, but that they will immerse themselves in the world views and theories of transformation of some of the great examples of mysticism and spirituality. In this post-colonial, post modern era of dialogue and globalization, we will see what wisdom can be gleaned from mystical literature, what wisdom can be shared across religious world views, and what wisdom can be integrated into our own spiritual and psychological evolution.



                                                Course Schedule:

1. Introduction   History of the study of ‘mysticism’. What does the word mean?  What is the historical backdrop of the field? Have ideas of what mysticism is changed over time? Handouts on “nature/folk/tribal religion and spirituality”

2. Classifying the phenomenon of ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystical states of consciousness.’ Read handouts of James, Otto, Underhill


3. Continue  Read Jung and Katz handouts

4. Conclude discussion on typologies of mysticism. Guest lecture.

In the case of all examples of expressions of mysticism, including the visual and aural arts, the questions for investigation will be: 1) What is the underlying view of reality ? 2) What is the problem or obstacle to experiencing/knowing this reality? 3) What is the overcoming of  this ‘ ‘problematic’ side of human experience?

5. The Inner Torah.  Mystical trends in Judaism. Discuss notions of ‘revelation,’, inspiration, spirit,  apophatic and catophatic experience/expression. Read G. Scholem, Buber, Maimonides, Kabbalah readings.

6. Continue Jewish mysticism.


7. See film ‘the Chosen’ What are the characteristics of traditional and modern Jewish thought revealed in the story, including Hasidism? How does each of the young men come to appropriate elements of the other’s perspectives?

8. The Inner Christ. Christian Mysticism. How do our authors understand the ‘way of Christ’, ‘union with Christ’? Handouts:  Augustine, Bonaventure, Teresa of Avila, Hildegard, John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart.


9.  Continue

10. Art, Symbol, and Alchemy in Christian mysticism


11. Film: Jesus of Montreal. Issues. What is the film maker trying to say about issues of traditional piety, modern spirituality, biblical history and hermeneutics, and the meaning of the ‘way’ of Christ?

12. The Inner Self.  Review Hindu and Buddhist assumptions of reality and human nature…and their absorptions in Indian and Chinese worlds.


13. Continue

14. Begin discussions on Zen Buddhism, including meditation.


15. The Selfless Self.  Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

16. Zen and the Fine Arts


17. The Inner Quran. Begin Islamic mysticism (Sufism). What is the Islamic/Sufi assumption about the nature and end/goal of human existence? Sufi interpretation of divine unity. The path/journey. States and stages.  Read handouts of Rumi, Ibn Arabi, Rabia al-Adawi.

18. no classes election day


19. Popular and ‘learned’ traditions in Sufism.

20. Films: “Dervishes, Lovers of God” and “Saints and Spirits”


21. Focus analysis on Rumi’s  poems.

22. The Islamic arts and the process of transformation.


23. Thanksgiving—no classes 

24. Contemporary expressions and syntheses. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen handout.


25. Finish Islamic mysticism.

26. The Inner Cosmos. Modern expressions of “mystical literature”—Blake, Hesse, Castenada (?)


27.  Contemporary Inter-  influence, adaptations of traditional spiritualities: Go back to James/Katz arguments?  Are mystical expressions “determined” by religious and cultural assumptions? Are these expressions pointing to the same reality/truth or different realities/truths?


28. Presentation of projects


29. Presentation of projects

Final Exam




1/3 attendance/homework response papers *

1/3 midterm exam

1/3 research project

*The homework assignment will be, unless otherwise specified, that every Tuesday, the student should turn in three or four gleanings or questions that came to them through the assigned readings of the week. Students should hand in these homework ‘response papers’ at the beginning of the class.



Required readings: 


Xerox packet of primary and secondary sources.


Office: Fahy 305 . Phone: 973-761-9461. Office hours to be announced on first day of class.