Changing Mystical Practice.
Yet by some measures, mysticism’s place in contemporary religious life looks more secure than ever. Our opinion polls suggest that we’re encountering the divine all over the place. In 1962, after a decade-long boom in church attendance and public religiosity, Gallup found that just 22 percent of Americans reported having what they termed “a religious or mystical experience.” Flash forward to 2009, in a supposedly more secular United States, and that number had climbed to nearly 50 percent.
In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we’ve done with every other kind of human experience: We’ve democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market. No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever. A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center. Sufi prayer techniques, Eucharistic adoration, peyote, tantric sex — name your preferred path to spiritual epiphany, and it’s probably on the table.
This democratization has been in many ways a blessing. Our horizons have been broadened, our religious resources have expanded, and we’ve even recovered spiritual practices that seemed to have died out long ago. The unexpected revival of glossolalia(speaking in tongues, that is), the oldest and strangest form of Christian worship, remains one of the more remarkable stories of 20th-century religion.
And yet Johnson may be right that something important is being lost as well. By making mysticism more democratic, we’ve also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish. It’s become something we pursue as a complement to an upwardly mobile existence, rather than a radical alternative to the ladder of success. Going to yoga classes isn’t the same thing as becoming a yogi; spending a week in a retreat center doesn’t make me Thomas Merton or Thérèse of Lisieux. Our kind of mysticism is more likely to be a pleasant hobby than a transformative vocation.