Mysticism, sacred and profane;: An inquiry into some varieties of praeter-natural experience Hardcover – January 1, 1957
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This book, while thoughtful and well-written, is the first academic step that I have been able to discern, toward a scholarly anti-mysticism, a tendency which culminates in the phenomenological error common to non-mystic writers on mysticism when they place it within personal and cultural frameworks, which are external to it by definition as a category. Zaehner' s error in this case seems to begin innocently enough as a simple preference for monotheism, unlike other writers of a similar time who place too large an emphasis on the East.
Here's the problem. By placing the quietists criticized by Ruysbroek on the same level as Shankara, Zaehner fails to make a crucial distinction. I agree that there is indeed a "natural" state of withdrawal into the self which some misconstrue as mysticism, but it is not identical to the heights attained by the monists of India. Rather, it is the monotheistic mystic, clinging to a doctrinal dichotomy between Creator and creature who has not attained to a pure state of union. The more rarefied metaphysically is our experience and understanding of our experience, the higher our degree of oneness or union, that is, that which is more unified is always higher metaphysically, according to my understanding of Plotinus. Sri Ramakrishna likewise refers to tasting the sugar, as opposed to being the sugar or being one with it. Now, the mystic who can realize the monistic consciousness and reconcile and embody it with and within the realm of action is indeed the highest. I am not denigrating monotheistic mysticism, which I feel is equally-valid in co-understanding with the monistic, or Western thought as a whole, which is as deep and rich as Eastern thought (and I actually prefer the flavor of the Western), I am only questioning Zaehner' s presentation of the stratification of the two. I agree on the importance of transcendence in the concept of the Divine, as well as the role played by love in mysticism, but not all the monists are pantheist, and when not their insistence on transcendence surpasses the theists, who believe in a personal God, still, they do not negate the crucial part played by love.
Zaehner did not have access to the Nag Hammadi texts, and Huxley as well feels more at home with Ruysbroek than with Trithemius, Agrippa, Dee or even Plotinus, Iamblichus or Boehme, but the point is Proust and Rimbaud are geniuses, but they don't belong in the same discussion as the Upanishads. Throw Jung into the mix and what you get is an unmitigated mess.
All in all, this is a valid, but flawed contribution to the study of mysticism, alongside the books of James, Huxley, Stace, Underhill, McGinn and Katz, some of which are excellent and some of which miss the point entirely. For an expanded view of mysticism including the hierophanic and intermediary experiences that these authors overlook or dismiss, see the books of Corbin and Jeremy Naydler. For a true understanding of Gnosticism, which Zaehner mentions briefly and misrepresents, see Jonas and Rudolph. And lastly, for a treatment of mysticism which does place it properly within the history of human consciousness, a task beyond the abilities of Zaehner, see the corresponding chapter in F M Cornford' s book 'From Religion to Philosophy.' Thank you.
I don't read any of the languages he studied, some of which he mastered. But after a lot of exposition which is "scholarly" to the nth degree and very repetitious for the most part, he draws the same conclusion that Buber did in the long quotation that begins the book--viz., that monotheistic mysticism is not the same as monistic mysticism.
It's a long way to go to state the obvious. An interested reader would do better to read Buber's book.
A monist believes that the universe is all made of one stuff. In the case of a religious monist, a category to which some schools of Hinduism belong, that one stuff would be God. Everything in the universe is part of God. Most of us are under the illusion that we are separate from God and from others and the spiritual person, in these traditions, sets out through meditative exercises to go beyond the veil of maya and realize himself as part of the Godhead.
The theist, on the other hand, recognizes a sort of dualism between God and the world. The theist would recognizes the unitive experience of the monist as an important first step, but it falls short of union with God.
Zaehner does a excellent job in describing the two types of experiences and their differences. In this time of a clash of civilizations, we might like to think all differences between religions are superficial and that they are essentially the same. However, Professor Zaehner proves that such is intellectually dishonest. It is too bad that this book does not presently have the readership of Aldous Huxley's "The Perennial Philosophy", because it would appear that the thesis of this latter work has gone largely unchallenged in the 50 years since its publication.
Perennial Philosophy is a term popularized by Huxley who understood it as the principle that the most important aspect of all religions is the escape from ego which allows the individual to become one with God. Zaehner's book is a ferocious and largely successful attack on this popular theory that is still delicately advanced by the most popular authors of comparative religion such as Karen Armstrong and Huston Smith. I cannot do justice to the depth and clarity of Zaehner's argument here, but this is the book to read for a well reasoned and religiously minded challenge to New Age thought. Since the turn of the last century, only four authors have stood out for the clarity and originality of their writing on this subject. They are William James, Evelyn Underhill, Aldous Huxley and R.C. Zaehner.