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The Study of Mystical Traditions is Opening a Path Toward New Forms of Religious Thought and Practice

This is a guest post by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham. Wickham is the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at the Library of Congress and Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University.

Can one be both a religious person and a humanist? If so, what kind of worldview might this entail? Together with my students, I grapple with this question in my seminar on “Gender, Sexuality, Islam,” a course taught by alternating faculty members at Emory University. The course I teach places the study of Islam in comparative perspective, applying a common analytic lens to study conceptions of gender and sexuality in different strands of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with case-studies from the past and the present day. This approach highlights important cross-religious differences, while revealing parallels in the templates of thought and practice that developed within each of these “sister” Abrahamic faith traditions.

One of the central objectives of the course is to introduce students to seminal works of feminist critique and (re-) interpretation of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and encourage them to consider whether, how, and to what extent the arguments advanced by feminists working within one religious tradition apply to its counterparts as well. This exploration has yielded two valuable insights. First is that the treatment of gender and sexuality by many religious authorities in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam evinces a shared logic that is deeply problematic from a feminist and humanist standpoint. Second is that the sacred texts and traditions of all three faith-traditions are amenable to a radically different understanding, one that is beyond the imagining of more conservative believers and staunch anti-religionists alike. Indeed, if such an understanding were to gain wider traction, it has the potential to transform these religions as we know them today.

A key question is how to parse the meaning of the sacred texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the Torah, the Christian Bible (encompassing the Old and New Testaments), and the Quran. For many believers, these texts are not just a source of inherited wisdom but rather constitute the revealed word of God. At the same time they bear the imprint of the societies in which they emerged, ones that are very different from those we inhabit today.

For example, these were societies that practiced slavery, viewed women as the possessions of their husbands, and supported war against non-believers. In addition, the sacred texts encompass conflicting ideas that are difficult to reconcile. One can find stirring verses within them on the common origins and equal worth of all human beings and the moral imperative to treat others with love and kindness. Yet one also finds verses assigning privileged status to some categories of individuals and groups over others.

As feminist critics observe, such texts can be understood in different ways, and the meanings we discover hinge on the interpretive lens through which we approach them. While we can gain insights from those who came before us, such teachers, to quote Seneca, are our guides, not our masters. It can be argued that each generation of believers has the ethical agency—and responsibility—to decide for themselves how to read the sacred texts and determine what lessons to derive from them.

The dominant interpretive lenses through which the sacred texts of the Abrahamic faiths have been understood over time represent but one strand of thought among many possibilities. Historically, such lenses were developed by male religious elites and reflected their interests and sensibilities. The interpretations they fashioned at earlier periods in world history continue to inform the beliefs and practices of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam up through the present day. In particular, as Jewish feminist theologian Judith Plaskow has observed, we find enduring traces of four “hierarchical dualisms” which associate the sacred with domination and separation rather than partnership and interdependence.

The first and most primary of these “hierarchical dualisms” is the representation of God as outside and above the human realm, and more particularly, as a male authority figure or king who demands absolute submission and obedience. Second is the ranking of the “spirit” as greater in holiness than “nature,” including the human body, making it at times not only acceptable but necessary to beat, torture, and kill witches, heretics, and other non-conformists in order to save their souls. Third is the characterization of men as the normative believers, and as those authorized by God the Father to rule over the family and the faith-community here on earth. Women, understood to be closer in essence to nature and the body, are depicted in many religious commentaries as less spiritually evolved, more prone to temptation, and in need of male direction and control. The last “hierarchical dualism” frames one’s co-religionists as “Chosen” by God and hence superior to the members of other faith-traditions, as well as to those who have no faith at all. In addition, it consecrates the separation of the elect from non-believers in order to safeguard their purity from the pollution of outside influences. These four “hierarchical dualisms” constitute inter-connected elements of a larger field of meaning and work to reinforce each other. In so doing, they bolster patterns of thought and practice in which the universal and humanist elements of the Abrahamic faith traditions become obscured.

At the same time, all three religious faith traditions are magnificently complex and multi-vocal. Historically, each of them has encompassed philosophical, spiritual, and mystical strands of thought in which proto-humanist ideas have been voiced. Sometimes, these strands have been vigorously rejected by religious authority figures, while other times they have become incorporated into mainstream forms of belief and practice.

In the mystical literature, God is portrayed as the animating energy or life spark of the universe, the source of Creation, and the Higher Reality which has no beginning or end. God is understood to transcend description in human terms, or as encompassing “male” and “female” dimensions that come together in a coincidentia oppositorum, a unity of opposites. Further, God is depicted as both transcendent and immanent—existing outside and above the human realm and within it. Each human being contains the “spirit” or “breath” of the Divine, with the goal of mystical contemplation to lift the veil and intuit the presence of God in all things, including the human heart.

Historically, the mystical traditions in each of the Abrahamic faiths were influenced by an ascetic inclination to associate holiness with spiritual detachment from the material world and suppression of the wants and needs of the body. But in some later forms of mysticism, a more positive view of nature and the body developed in which they too came to be seen as infused with the Divine presence and thus to be celebrated rather than abhorred. Indeed, in some mystical formulations, the sexual union of lover and beloved came to be seen as a sacred act—not just as a metaphor for, but a tangible intimation of, human union with the Divine.

Though much of the mystical literature was written from a male perspective, and focused on the male believer’s path to spiritual enlightenment, women were also participants in mystical movements, not just as followers but as spiritual guides and teachers. Indeed, some male mystics acknowledged the superior spiritual insight of certain holy women, giving rise to a view of gender differences as superficial and essentially irrelevant to one’s capacity for spiritual refinement. Hence within the mystical traditions of the Abrahamic faiths we find the foundations (if not always the full expression) of the idea of women as the spiritual equals of men, opening the door to a model of male-female relationships based not on hierarchy and domination but on mutual love and respect.

Finally, certain mystical strands of thought lend themselves to a view of all religions as essentially different paths to the same end. What we find here is the potential for a sanctification of difference—the idea that diversity in the beliefs and practices of religious communities are an intrinsic part of God’s design. Further, the mystical tradition opens the door to an understanding of religious differences, like those of gender, race, and ethnicity, as surface-level distinctions that are superseded by our common standing as creatures fashioned in the image of the Divine. Rather than treat religious pluralism as a problem to be solved by separating oneself from religious “Others” or attempting to convert them, this perspective forges a path to inter-faith relations of fellowship and peace.

The mystical strands of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam offer the groundwork for a new kind of monotheism that aligns with the humanist values and sensibilities many Americans hold today. Many of these Americans don’t see God as a stern patriarch demanding absolute obedience. Rather, they view God as having created human beings—both men and women—with free will and the moral responsibility to serve as the caretakers of creation. Within this understanding, human beings are called to be the “partners” or “friends” of God, co-creators of a world infused with the Divine attributes of beauty, peace, harmony, and justice. Human creativity and insight are to be celebrated because they are God-given faculties that enable believers to grasp the sacredness of the world and repair its fractures. In this view, what is holy is not separateness but connection and interdependence—between God and humanity, between men and women, and between people of different faith communities. Holiness, it might be said, inheres in the move toward wholeness, both in the inner psyche of the individual and the world at large.

The philosophical, ethical and poetic legacies of mysticism represent a hidden spring, an undercurrent flowing beneath the prevailing religious orthodoxies of their day, at times celebrated, at times ignored, and at times openly condemned. The 21st century communities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who choose to draw upon their spiritual teachings and interpret them in light of modern-day humanist sensibilities and concerns are creating new templates of religious belief and practice that are transcendent and luminous in their meaning and power. In so doing, they are freeing people born into monotheist faith communities from having to choose to be religious or humanist, enabling them to be both.