Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam course no. 6130
Taught By Professor Luke Timothy Johnson, Ph.D., Yale University, Emory University
Mystical experiences and practices—including dramatic visions, direct communication with the divine, intense spiritual quests, and hermetic lifestyles—are commonly associated with Eastern cultures and thought to be far removed from the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
But consider the following:
Many of the most important figures in the Jewish Bible had experiences that can be interpreted as mystical, including Moses's conversation with God as the burning bush, Joseph's prophetic dreams, and Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly throne-chariot.
* Jesus Christ, as a figure believed to be the incarnation of God, can be seen as representing the ultimate goal of mystical thought, the unification of human with divine.
* The Islamic prophet Muhammad is believed to have experienced the call of God directly through the angel Gabriel, and throughout his life he reported incidents of mystical encounters, including the divine revelation of the Qur'an, the sacred text of Islam.
In these examples, we encounter a surprising truth: that each of the great three Abrahamic religious traditions—those religions that trace their origins back to the patriarch Abraham—holds the seeds for deep mystical contemplation. Over the course of centuries and even millennia, mystics in all three traditions have written of their experiences in the quest for God. But what do most of us know about these mystics and the tradition they sustained?
In Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, you explore this spiritual, literary, and intellectual heritage in these great faiths of the West as it unfolds over three millennia. In 36 enlightening, thought-provoking lectures, award-winning Professor Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University offers nearly unprecedented access to these seldom-studied traditions. Through poetry, diaries, philosophical writings, and histories, you gain a fresh perspective on the great Abrahamic religious faiths that will deepen your understanding and appreciation of these important traditions.
A Rare Glimpse into the Heart of Religious Experience
Professor Johnson provides you with a perspective on the Abrahamic religions that is surprising and enlightening. Students of religion rarely get the chance to examine the entire scope of mysticism in the West in a single course. By laying the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam side by side, Professor Johnson offers a unique opportunity to compare and contrast the many forms of religious experience in the West.
What emerges is a picture of Western mysticism as diverse, multifaceted, and ever-developing. Starting with the most ancient texts of the Hebrew Bible, Professor Johnson traces the emergence, growth, and persistence of mystical thought in many countries and in many ages. Bringing together the disciplines of philosophy, history, literature, and religious studies, Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam offers a nuanced and insightful examination of Western spirituality—one that contributes not only to a fuller understanding of our religious traditions, but to our shared culture and history as well.
As you examine the mystical experience, you see how, again and again, Western mystics have sought the answers to a few fundamental questions: What is the nature of reality? What is the relationship between humankind and the divine? Can human beings ever attain full knowledge of creation?
What Is Mysticism?
But what do we mean when we speak of Western mysticism? What forms does mysticism take in the three Abrahamic faiths, and what sorts of rewards and information does it provide?
As Professor Johnson shows, there is no single or simple definition of mysticism. In some traditions, it is rooted in intellectual discipline—the exploration of philosophical inquiries into the nature of reality through scholarship and debate. In others, it's based in devotion to prayer and fasting as a way to discipline the body and soul to focus wholly on God. In still others, it's defined by ecstatic experience—a glimpse of the divine given as a gift from above that cannot be controlled or even fully described by the mystic.
Just consider these diverse instances of mysticism, which represent the different styles and methods of mystical practice:
* The writings of Jewish Kabbalah mystic Rabbi Abulafia, whose work includes practical directions for the achievement of religious ecstasy
* The practice of hesychasm, through which medieval Christians used the repetition of the "Jesus prayer" to evoke a stillness in body and soul and invite divine revelation
* The theological texts of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, a Muslim scholar who explored the mystical implications of love through breathtaking poetry
What these diverse traditions share is an intense desire to experience the divine. In some cases, this highly individual quest aligns with the shared practices of the faith—as when Christian monks in medieval monasteries used prayer and contemplation to enhance their spiritual lives. In others, mystics find themselves in tension with the dominant tradition—as seen in the case of the Islamic Sufi mystics, whose asceticism developed in opposition to the tenets of the faith as practiced by the larger community.
But what all these traditions share is a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge of God as the heart of religious experience and the very core of what it means to be human.
Memorable Lives, Lyrical Utterances
Mystical Tradition introduces you to the many faces of mysticism, from renowned scholars to simple people striving for personal enlightenment, throughout the centuries.
Along the way, you encounter the fascinating stories of mystics—both famous and obscure—whose quest for knowledge resonates today:
* The 11th-century Sufi mystic al-Ghazzali, whose spiritual crisis led him to abandon a successful university career to pursue a life of asceticism and contemplation.
* Teresa of Ávila, one of three female doctors of the Roman Catholic Church, whose harrowing and mystical vision of hell led her to found a more rigorous form of monastic life.
* Abraham Isaac Kook, a 20th-century rabbi whose work forged a fascinating connection between the scientific theory of evolution and Kabbalah
You also hear about the less renowned, everyday people who followed the mystical tradition through daily devotions and community life, from Jewish Hasidic communities that arose in the 18th century to the 16th-century Anabaptists, whose attempts to live a newly reformed, mystically focused form of Protestant Christianity led to their persecution.
These lives emerge from the writings they left behind—touching personal diaries, historical accounts of visions and revelations, theological commentaries, and lyrical poems of great beauty. Using firsthand sources, Professor Johnson explores the various roles writing has played in mysticism and provides memorable, moving examples of the great literature produced by this vast spiritual tradition, including such famed pieces as St. Francis of Assisi's "Canticle of Brother Sun" and remarkable excerpts from the wisdom literature of a 9th-century female Sufi mystic.
Contemplate the Nature of Spirituality
You also contemplate questions about the nature of mysticism itself: How are we to understand mysticism—as literally true, as poetically true, or as a delusion? Will mysticism survive in an increasingly secular world? What is the future of mysticism? As it becomes detached and popularized apart from its religious faiths, can mystical observances retain their original character?
The course also offers a thought-provoking perspective on the nature of human spirituality. As Professor Johnson demonstrates, mystical strains of thought have permeated and influenced these three great religions for centuries, despite opposition from—and, in some cases, persecution by—the mainstream religious community. As you come to see, this persistence in the face of persecution reflects something about human nature: the need to pursue ultimate knowledge and union with a transcendent power.
A Unique Opportunity
For most students, this is a unique opportunity. Many of the sources Professor Johnson draws on—from ancient Hebrew meditations to medieval Muslim philosophical texts to early Christian Gnostic writings—are unavailable to general readers. Some of them have only recently been translated into English. Professor Johnson's course offers for nonspecialists what in many cases is a first-time glimpse into this tradition.
A noted religious scholar and former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson offers an intriguing, enlightening look into these seldom-studied traditions and illuminates the rich and complex relationship between mystical contemplation and the Western traditions of faith. He also helps you understand how these various traditions have contributed to faith, philosophy, and daily life over the centuries.
But perhaps most important, he invites you to join him as you ponder a new way to understand faith, religion, and the essence of humanity. Explore with Professor Johnson the intriguing and enriching insights that await you in Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Should I Buy Audio or Video?
While this course works well in all formats, the DVD version features over 700 visual elements to enhance your learning experience, including images, maps, and a wealth of on-screen text taken from each faith's rich body of mystical literature.
Course Lecture Titles
30 minutes / lecture
1. A Way into the Mystic Ways of the West
What do we mean by religion, mysticism, and prayer? What is the relation of mystical experience and mystical writing? In this opening lecture, you consider these questions and preview the path you will take as you consider the traditions of mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
2. Family Resemblances and Differences
You take a closer look at the traditions and observances of the three major Western religions and explore their complex interrelations and differences.
3. The Biblical Roots of Western Mysticism
The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the most powerful source both for the premises of Western mysticism and for its symbolism. Here, we consider the biblical images and themes that recur in mystical accounts, including the pilgrimage, the cloud, and the heavenly throne.
4. Mysticism in Early Judaism
During the Hellenistic period (c. 300 B.C.E–200 C.E.), Jews in Palestine and in the Diaspora found new ways to maintain fidelity to the covenant. This lecture explores three manifestations of mysticism from this period: apocalyptic literature, the writings of the Essenes, and the teachings of Hellenistic Jews.
5. Merkabah Mysticism
While classical Judaism may seem legalistic and intellectually oriented, this same period saw the growth of a powerful form of mysticism centered in the emotional experience of a spiritual "ascent" to the heavenly throne-chariot (Merkabah).
6. The Hasidim of Medieval Germany
For Jews in Crusade-era Germany (1150–1250), dedication to the keeping of Torah was particularly perilous. During these dangerous times, a form of mysticism called Hasidism arose that appealed even to everyday people and found adherents beyond the small circle of accomplished scholars.
7. The Beginnings of Kabbalah
Although it was the most dominant form of Jewish mysticism for some seven centuries, Kabbalah's origins are shrouded in mystery. This lecture traces some of the early efforts in this tradition.
8. Mature Kabbalah—Zohar
For countless Jewish practitioners of Kabbalah, the Zohar(Book of Splendor) ranks in status next to Torah and Talmud. Although presented as an ancient tradition, Kabbalah is actually the astonishing literary creation of the 13th-century Spanish Jewish mystic, Moses de Leon.
9. Isaac Luria and Safed Spirituality
With the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jewish mysticism took on themes of exile, loss, and messianism. This lecture examines a new strain of Kabbalistic teaching that arose during this period.
10. Sabbatai Zevi and Messianic Mysticism
The elements of mysticism and messianism in the Lurianic teaching found explosive expression in Sabbatai Zevi, a self-proclaimed messiah and apostate whose teachings led to the founding of a new sectarian movement, Sabbatianism.
11. The Ba'al Shem Tov and the New Hasidism
In the 18th century, a new form of popular Jewish mysticism arose in Eastern Europe, beginning with the charismatic career of Israel Ba'al Shem Tov. This lecture considers the life of the movement's founder as well as the character of its literature and piety.
12. Mysticism in Contemporary Judaism
Examining the distinct movements within modern Judaism (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative) and the rise as Zionism (the quest for a Jewish homeland in Israel), Professor Johnson asks a key question: What elements of mysticism persist in such an altered tradition?
13. Mystical Elements in the New Testament
Like the Old Testament, the writings of earliest Christianity can be read in terms of mystical experiences and symbols. You examine these mystical strains, as seen in discussions of Jesus's divine nature, and the apostle Paul's report of ascent to the third heaven.
14. Gnostic Christianity
The mid-2nd century witnessed a pitched battle between those seeking a standardized canon of Christian belief and a mystical strain of the faith—Gnosticism—that sought salvation through the pursuit of a special kind of divine knowledge.
15. The Spirituality of the Desert
With Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, some believers sought to create their own form of "white martyrdom" through a life of physical asceticism and prayer. Through works such as Athanasius's Life of Antony, you examine the lives and teachings of these self-imposed ascetics.
16. Shaping Christian Mysticism in the East
This lecture considers three authors of the 4th century who are foundational to the development of the distinctive spirituality of Orthodoxy: Evagrius Ponticus, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Syrian monk called Pseudo-Macarius.
17. Eastern Monks and the Hesychastic Tradition
You continue consideration of mysticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church with an examination of how Greek influences fed into the development of the Hesychastic tradition, a form of mysticism that focuses on contemplative prayer.
18. The Mysticism of Western Monasticism
As Eastern monks sought spirituality in the desert, the faithful of Western Catholicism turned to monasticism for a way to live God's will through contemplation. The works of Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Richard of St. Victor offer a window into this tradition.
19. Medieval Female Mystics
The contemplative life flourished among women as well as men in the medieval period. This lecture explores the teaching and writings of these female mystics produced in monastic houses, in lay houses of the Beguines, and through the role of anchorite.
20. Mendicants as Mystics
Unlike monks in the monasteries, members of the mendicant orders pursued the spiritual life while preaching and working among the people. In this lecture, you consider outstanding examples of mendicant mystics, including Francis and Clare of Assisi and Bonaventure.
21. English Mystics of the 14th Century
Fourteenth-century England witnessed a remarkable surge in mystical activity and insight. This lecture looks at some of the finest examples, from the anonymous masterpiece, The Cloud of Unknowing, to the distinctive works of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Julian of Norwich.
22. 15th- and 16th-Century Spanish Mystics
In Spain, the Counter-Reformation produced a climate of intense spiritual renewal in the face of Protestant dissent. Following the inspired path of Ignatius of Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises provided a template for contemplation, Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Francisco de Osuna provide examples of a new strain of Catholic mysticism.
23. Mysticism among Protestant Reformers
While Martin Luther and John Calvin are best known for their attacks on what they regarded as the abuses found in medieval monasteries, they also taught a form of Christian piety in which the ascetical tradition continued to find a central place.
24. Mystical Expressions in Protestantism
The mystical impulse also showed itself within various branches of Protestantism, as exemplified in the work of the most influential Protestant mystic, Jacob Boehme. You also explore the Pietism of P. J. Spener and the Anglican mysticism of Jeremy Taylor and William Law.
25. 20th-Century Mystics
Mysticism continues to flourish within the Christianity of the 20th and 21st centuries—in monasteries, in groups devoted to the prayerful reading of scripture, and in the communal ecstasies of Pentecostal worship. This lecture discusses three noteworthy modern-day mystics: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil, and Thomas Merton.
26. Muhammad the Prophet as Mystic
Professor Johnson opens a unit on Islam with a consideration of the life of the religion's founder, the Prophet Muhammad, and focuses on the incidents that helped shape Islamic mysticism. You also consider the special character of the Qur'an, the "Mother of all Books," as a revelatory text and as the source for mystical experience within Islam.
27. The House of Islam
In this lecture, you learn more about the Islamic faith and its key tenets and structures, including its basic convictions concerning God and the world, prophets and books, submission and infidelity. Tracing the teaching of the Qu'ran, you examine the "five pillars" of Islam: confession, prayer, alms, fasting, and pilgrimage.
28. The Mystical Sect—Shi'a
Nearly since its founding, Islam has been divided into factions based on disputes over authority. After surveying these divisions, you focus on the Shi'a party, which locates the heart of Islam in connection to the prophet and the prophet's family rather than in the larger Islam community.
29. The Appearance of Sufism
For a religion that is so fundamentally antiascetical, the emergence of Sufism—the distinctive form of Islamic mysticism—is something of a surprise, as is its remarkable success. This lecture assesses various possible causes for this development, and then sketches the Sufi way of life as a path of knowledge, love, and prayer.
30. Early Sufi Masters
A sampling of Sufi passages from the 8th to the 10th centuries demonstrates how the Qur'an was interpreted mystically, and how the quest for Allah could be captured by the form of traditional Arabic poetry. The lecture discusses traditions associated with a number of Sufi mystics, including the controversial figure of al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj.
31. The Limits of Mysticism—Al-Ghazzali
The first centuries of Islam saw both a spectacular spread of the religion and an explosion in innovative speculation in philosophy and theology. In this lecture, explore this vibrant period, the resulting impact of Islam thought on the West, and the contributions made by one of Islam's most important thinkers, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali.
32. Two Masters, Two Streams
Sufi mysticism navigates between an emphasis on knowledge and an emphasis on love. In this lecture, you explore the work of two contemporary 13th-century masters who represent these two strains and exercised substantial influence on subsequent generations of Sufi teachers: Ibn al-'Arabi and Jalal al-Din Rumi.
33. Sufism in 12th–14th Century North Africa
Sufism spread through all the territories won by Islamic conquest and was one of the chief instruments of Islam's expansion. This lecture takes up the lives and writings of three Sufi teachers in North Africa: the Egyptians Sufi Umar ibn al-Farid and Ibn 'Ata' Illah, and Ibn 'Abbad of Ronda, a Sufi born in Spain who flourished in Morocco.
34. Sufi Saints of Persia and India
Sufism is truly an international movement and its literature is as rich in Persian as in Arabic. Here, you examine some examples of this tradition, including the Intimate Conversations of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, the Divine Flashes by Fakhruddin 'Iraqi, and Fawa'id al-Fu'ad's Morals for the Heart.
35. The Continuing Sufi Tradition
Today, mysticism continues to thrive within Islam, and Sufism has become an appealing spiritual option even for non-Muslims. This lecture explores the extensive network of Sufi fellowships throughout the world and how they continue the traditions of finding mystical meaning in the Qur'an.
36. Mysticism in the West Today
The course concludes with a series of reflections on mysticism in the modern world. What are we to make of the truth-claims of mystics? What are the possibilities for mysticism in a super-secularized West? What can we say about the popular forms of mysticism offered on every side?