TThe Mysticism Group of the

American Academy of Religion

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For the AAR Annual Meeting

in Atlanta, GA, USA

November 21-24.

Christian Spirituality Group and Mysticism Group

Theme: The Life and Times of a Modern Mystic: On the Centenary of the Birth of Thomas Merton

Thomas Cattoi, Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, Presiding
Saturday - 1:00 PM-3:30 PM
Hyatt-Dunwoody (Atlanta Conference Level)

In recognition of the centenary of the birth of Thomas Merton, this session features papers that examine Merton's spirituality and mysticism.

Unregistered Participant
"We Drank Many Gin and Tonics": Desire and Enchantment in Merton's Buddhist Pilgrimage

This paper will focus on Thomas Merton’s “pilgrimage” to Asia in 1968 – ostensibly in order to participate in a monastic conference in Thailand (where he would die), but also affording him the occasion to travel more extensively in native Buddhist territories – as it turned out, mostly in Himalayan regions. After years of reading and writing about Buddhism, Merton had constructed a complex set of presuppositions about what he might find in Asia, some of which merged with fantastical “Western” orientalist tropes. However, Merton would conversely also become an object of Buddhist desire. This paper will attempt to critically consider Thomas Merton’s encounter with Buddhism in Asia as a model of dialogue, as well a lens for illuminating enduring colonial preoccupations and spiritual commodification.

Daniel Horan, Boston College
The Lady, the Dunce, and the Monk: How Julian of Norwich and John Duns Scotus Shaped Thomas Merton’s Incarnational Mysticism

Thomas Merton, whose centenary of birth we celebrate this year, is widely recognized as one of the greatest Christian spiritual masters and mystics of the twentieth century. This paper is a contribution to the effort of uncovering the rich diversity of Merton’s intellectual and spiritual sources through an examination of the influence of Julian of Norwich (d. ca. 1416) and John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) on Merton’s incarnational mysticism. This paper proceeds in three parts: First, I turn to Julian’s Showings to highlight the content and development of her own Incarnational mysticism; Second, I argue that Scotus was more than a philosopher and theologian, but also a mystic whose supralapsarian Christology and theological anthropology reflect a profound spiritual sensibility deeply rooted in the English Franciscan tradition; Finally, I demonstrate how Merton’s own thought, prayer, and writing was indelibly shaped by both Julian and Scotus in original and heretofore unexamined ways.

Daniel Rober, St. John's University, New York
Is Thomas Merton a Saint? Does it Matter? Mysticism, Postmodernity, and the Limits of Sanctity
Thomas Merton provides a modern paradigm case of the tension between mysticism and official notions of sanctity as expressed in the canonization process of the Roman Catholic Church. This paper examines the complications surrounding the possibility of Merton’s cause for sainthood. It argues, in dialogue with his writings as well as with the history and theology of sainthood, that Merton is deserving of this honor. He further demonstrates the need for rethinking the standards that have been used in recent times to delineate sainthood.

Katelynn Carver, University of Saint Andrews
The Many-Storied Mountains: A Mertonian Model for the Spiritual Significance of Narrativity
In considering the multidimensional legacy of Thomas Merton’s life and works, the impact of his approach to both writing and to cross-contextual dialogue emerge as two of the most prominent hallmarks of his lasting impact in both religious and secular communities, as well as both within and outside of academia. Taking creativity as a means of evoking meaning in human life, and likewise taking spirituality to align with Sandra Schneiders’ definition as “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives”, Merton can be understood as a modern embodiment of what might be termed a spirituality of narrativity, thus allowing for the impact of his works to be engaged as providing a model for the modern emphasis on writing as spiritual practice and/or as an exercise oriented toward enlightenment both within and outside of religious contexts.

Christine M. Bochen, Nazareth College

Mysticism Group

Theme: Spiritual but Not Religious:

Mysticism and the “Nones”

Ann Gleig, University of Central Florida, Presiding
Sunday - 1:00 PM-2:30 PM
Hilton-307 (Level 3)

This paper session examines the phenomenon of “Spiritual but not Religious” (SBNR) self-identification in 20th and 21st century contexts, with special reference to the so-called “Nones,” or individuals that do not identify with a sectarian tradition but may consider themselves “spiritual” or “mystical” in orientation. The three papers examine different facets of this phenomenon, ranging from an examination of the SBNR phenomenon’s emergence in 20th century Britain to its influences from Asian and “heterodox” religious communities and its inspiration in the mystical and spiritual experiences of so-called “millennials.” The SBNR movement is respectively analyzed as representing a response to modernity, as an integration of interfaith and interspiritual perspectives, and as an effort to reach for personal meaning in a pluralistic era that cannot be simply reduced to a narcissistic self-centeredness.

Jane A. Shaw, Stanford University
The Mystical Turn and the "Spiritual but Not Religious" Phenomenon in Early Twentieth-Century Britain

This paper looks at the ‘spiritual but not religious’ phenomenon as it emerged in early twentieth-century Britain in three areas: (1) a growing sense of disillusionment with the churches; (2) a revival of interest in mysticism; and (3) an increasing range of spiritual choices in the form of ‘para’ churches and communities, and ‘heterodox’ religious groups. The mystical turn occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century, with the work of people like W.R. Inge and Evelyn Underhill, and continued to gather interest in the interwar years, encompassing a broader turn to religious experience. This placed religious authority with the individual rather than the institution. This paper argues that the beginning of a decline in institutional religion in the early twentieth century went in tandem with a flourishing of personal spirituality: secularization and sacralization went hand in hand during this period.

Stephanie Yuhas, University of Colorado
Seeking Non-Dual Experience: The Spiritual but Not Religious Approach to Mysticism

Although not everyone who identifies as SBNR has had a direct mystical experience, there are a number in my research who fall into that category. In this paper, I will provide insights learned from my interviews conducted as part of a research study on the experiential component of the Spiritual But Not Religious movement. Influenced by Asian religions, quantum physics, and the trend toward embodied practices, SBNR’s perceive unitive experience and interrelationship as primary components of spirituality. In order to provide context for the observations culled from my interviews, I will enlist some of the most recent explorations of the Spiritual But Not Religious movement including Robert Fuller’s Spiritual But Not Religious and Linda Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders as well as texts that point to the emerging paradigm of non-dual approaches and interspiritual understandings.

Linda Ceriello, Rice University
Contemporary Narratives of the SBNR and Nones: Toward a Metamodern Reading of Millennial Mysticisms

This paper will engage the question of how to regard the relationship of mystical experience to the peculiar spiritualities of SBNRs and Nones. Drawing from my work in the Alister Hardy Archive of the Religious Experience Research Centre, I examine contemporary narratives of religious and spiritual experience that illuminate how we might account for shifting levels of normativity around mystical experience, particularly as reflected in and by millennials’ engagement with popular culture.
I explore the notion that, far from reflecting a narcissistic turn, the choice by millennials to select identities as SBNR or None is a means of constructing liminal spaces that comprise and mirror their contemporary, felt reality. Mystics and mystical activity are considered as visible examples of a recently theorized metamodern epistemic cultural sensibility that further elucidate the reclamation of affect--a post-postmodern re-admittance of personal meaning--and a desire for a seat at the pluralistic table.

Linda A. Mercadante, Methodist Theological School, Ohio


Contemplative Studies Group and Mysticism Group

Theme: Mystics and Contemplatives in the Academy Today: Religious Experience from the Outside In and Inside Out

June McDaniel, College of Charleston, Presiding
Sunday - 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Marriott-International 3 (International Level)

This panel discussion will consist of scholars who also identify as either contemplatives or mystics, and who are able to discuss the study of contemplative practice and mystical experience from both “outside-in” (academic) and “inside-out” (lived) perspectives. Scholar-practitioners from a range of Asian and Western religions, as well as traditional and New Religious Movements, will explore questions such as the following: Which models and methodologies are most useful in the study of contemplative experience and mysticism? Can critical first-person accounts of contemplative or mystical experience be integrated with the hermeneutics of suspicion that undergird much of the theory and method of the academic study of religion? In doing so, they will reflect on the role of adherents and scholar-practitioners in the study of religious experience and discuss the promises and perils of “coming out,” as a “contemplative” or “mystic” in the academy.


Unregistered Participant
Lola L. Williamson, Millsaps College
Christopher Chapple, Loyola Marymount University
Barbara A. B. Patterson, Emory University
Jay Michaelson, Chicago Theological Seminary
Jeffrey J. Kripal, Rice University

Business Meeting:
Stuart R. Sarbacker, Oregon State University



Mysticism Group and Western Esotericism Group
Theme: A Twentieth Century Mystic and Esotericist: Valentin Tomberg

Marco Pasi, University of Amsterdam, Presiding
Tuesday - 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Hyatt-Harris (Atlanta Conference Level)

Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973) is still a relatively little known author, even among specialists of modern mysticism and western esotericism. However, since his major wok "Meditations on the Tarot: An Introduction to Christian Hermeticism" was first published posthumously and anonymously in 1984, there has been a growing awareness of the originality and complexity of his thought. The book is noteworthy for its attempt to substantially integrate Roman Catholicism and Western esotericism, and Tomberg’s efforts have found a very favourable reception in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who brought Tomberg to the attention of Pope John Paul II. Since then, both significant figures in Christian spirituality, like Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, and scholars of Western esotericism, like Antoine Faivre, have lauded Tomberg’s work. This panel brings together for the first time a number of scholars who have focused their reaserches on Tomberg's work and milieu.

Glenn McCullough, University of Toronto
The Gnostic Christian: Valentin Tomberg’s Integration of C.G. Jung’s Gnostic Psychology with Catholic Orthodoxy

The depth psychology of C.G. Jung plays a central role in Valentin Tomberg’s magnum opus, Meditations on the Tarot. But Jung is a controversial figure for Catholicism, as evidenced by Hans Urs von Balthasar’s negative assessment of Jung’s gnostic tendencies. Jung himself made a serious but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at rapprochement with Catholicism in his correspondence with Thomist scholar Fr. Victor White, and this failed attempt disappointed Jung deeply. My thesis is that Valentin Tomberg’s integration of Jungian psychology with orthodox Catholic theology succeeds where Jung failed. More generally, Tomberg’s rehabilitation of Jung is a retrieval of a form of Christian gnosis, a retrieval which is in line with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s overall project, and which likely explains Balthasar’s interest in Tomberg. Tomberg’s retrieval of Jungian gnosis proceeds in three related moves, which the paper will discuss in detail.

Michael Stoeber, University of Toronto
Reincarnation in Christian Hermeticism: Valentin Tomberg’s View of Soul-Making Rebirth and Roman Catholicism

This paper will explore Valentin Tomberg’s Christian Hermetic view of soul-making rebirth, focussing initially on the question of its compatibility with Roman Catholic anthropology. It will show the parallels with the anthropology of Edith Stein, in highlighting the distinction between the valuative-affective essence of the individual (psychic/spiritual dispositions, habits, and desires) and the characteristics that are genetically inherited from one’s ancestors. In Tomberg’s view, the former essential qualities of a person are carried over from the previous incarnation and integrated in a new embodiment with those features of that are given to the person through heredity. The paper will go on to explore related questions: Is Tomberg's view of rebirth intelligible and coherent? How would it relate to traditional Roman Catholic eschatology? What are its sources? Is there any scriptural or empirical evidence to support the doctrine? How does the view compare with Hindu postulations of rebirth?

Helmut Zander, University of Fribourg
Esoteric Catholic Spirituality: The Tomberg-Network and the Spirituality of Reincarnation and Grace

Catholic spirituality in Western Europe in the 20th century has been influenced by so-called “esoteric” ideas, predominantly of theosophical origin which have not been explored yet. One important figure of this tradition is Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973), a former Protestant who became a leading anthroposophist in Estonia and converted in the 1940s to the Catholic Church. The paper will describe a network of other converts to Catholicism influenced by Tomberg, all of them being professors at German universities (e.g. Robert Spaemann and Martin Kriele). Furthermore, I shall include Tomberg’s influence on a Catholic theologian like Hans Urs von Balthasar. Concerning their spiritual convictions, my analysis will focus on the idea of reincarnation, deriving from Theosophy and fostered by these men, which caused considerable tensions with the Catholic theology of grace.