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Web Extra: After Modernity, Mysticism Found in Texts and Practices


After Modernity, Mysticism Found in Texts and Practices

Rabbi Alan Brill, GSAS ’94, discusses the Gannon Lecture with audience members.
Photo by Ryan Brenizer

By Gina Vergel

Mysticism, once hailed by theologians as esoteric and nearly beyond description, can be found today in everyday texts and practices, a scholar said at Fordham University’s Gannon Lecture.

“It’s a private language,” said Rabbi Alan Brill (GSAS ’94), the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University. “One looks at the entire shelf [of books on mysticism] to help describe experiences that are seen as common. But there’s no clear corpus with clear closure.”

“Is There Still a Mystery to Mysticism After Modernity” was delivered by Brill on Oct. 6 at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus.

Brill said he became interested in researching mysticism while on a trip to Jerusalem with fellow graduate students and his mentor, Ewert Cousins, Ph.D., an emeritus professor at Fordham. Cousins is a Catholic theologian who has studied the Christian mystical tradition.

“He asked us, ‘What is mysticism?’ and we noticed conflicting definitions that summer,” Brill said. “Many have spent the past few decades trying to figure out if mysticism is one thing. How can there be so many definitions on the table?”

In the 20th century, mysticism was generally removed from the study of theology, Brill said. Yet in the 1960s, mysticism regained some prominence due to German theologian Karl Ronner and the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, among others.

There five different models of how mysticism is approached today, Brill said:

Model one treats mysticism as a text that describes God’s presence. “God is the ground behind the text and therefore there is still a meaning,” Brill said.

Model two is mysticism as euphoria or fragmentation. “This approach locates the paradox of the presence of God and the absence of God in modern life,” Brill said. “Mysticism overcomes the absence of God and at same time retains a sense of God’s distance.”

Model three includes those who treat mysticism as political, such as Mary Gray and Elie Wiesel. “The mystical version allows for hope,” Brill said.

Model four is a style of writing. “This model treats mysticism as writing. It makes the text not a point of meeting God, but the very manner of writing is mystical. This approach is a return to 17th century, when mysticism is seen as hieroglyphics, kaballah and mystic knowledge,” Brill said.

Brill said that after the linguistic turn, there has been a reintegration of mystical text into theology as a corpus of text.

“This may be the greatest contribution of our current era of theology more than any specific constructions,” Brill said.”

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