Methods in the Study of Esotericism, Part II


Mysticism and the Study of Esotericism

Arthur Versluis

Michigan State University



   In the companion article to this one, I outlined the major current approaches to the study of esotericism, and proposed what I term “sympathetic empiricism” as the approach that I find most amenable.  This is the approach that I used in my trilogy of books on Christian theosophy, beginning with Theosophia  (1994), Wisdom's Children (1999) and Wisdom's Book  (2000).  While I am convinced of the critical importance of historiography in the study of esotericism (and for this reason all of my academic books are firmly grounded in historical method) I do not believe that historiography is adequate in itself to convey the complex, multivalent nature of esoteric thought, traditions, or most of all, experience.  Esotericism, given all its varied forms and its inherently multidimensional nature, cannot be conveyed without going beyond purely historical information: at minimum, the study of esotericism, and in particular mysticism, requires some degree of imaginative participation in what one is studying.


Remarks on the Study of the Esoteric

   Let me begin by sorting out at least some terms, an operation particularly important when working with terms as slippery as “esotericism” and “mysticism.  The first of these was defined in the following way by the Association for the Study of Esotericism [ASE], a new academic organization founded on 1 May, 2002:


The word “esoteric” derives from the Greek esoterikos, derived from esotero, comparative of eso, meaning “within.”  Although its first known mention in Greek is in Lucian’s ascription to Aristotle of having “esoteric” [inner] and “exoteric” [outer] teachings, the word later came to designate the secret doctrines said to have been taught by Pythagoras to a select group of disciples.  In this context, the word was brought into English in 1655 by Stanley in his History of Philosophy. 
Esotericism, as a field of academic study, refers to alternative, marginalized, or dissident religious movements or philosophies whose proponents in general distinguish their beliefs, practices, and experiences from public, institutionalized religious traditions.  Among areas of investigation in the field of esotericism are alchemy, astrology, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah, magic, mysticism, Neoplatonism, many new religious movements, nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first century occult movements, Rosicrucianism, secret societies, and theosophy. [1]


This is a functional definition: what is esoteric is inner, hidden from outsiders, non-public, and in this context, associated with secret or semi-secret spiritual teachings. 


   Given this functional definition of esotericism, we can see that mysticism falls naturally within it.  Indeed, one could well argue that mysticism represents the purest form of esotericism, in that  mystical experience is inherently esoteric, that is, an inner dimension of religious experience clearly distinguished from ritual or institutional religious practice even if the mystic endorses and draws upon the latter.  Mysticism is, then, in this definition a subset of esotericism; mysticism is by its very nature esoteric.  In the model that I outlined in part one of this article, esotericism has as its central characteristic gnosis, meaning experiential insight into the nature of the divine as manifested in the individual and in the cosmos.  Gnosis may be divided into two broad categories: cosmological, and metaphysical or transcendent.. These are not, however, mutually exclusive but rather complementary and overlapping.  Cosmological gnosis is insight into the nature of the cosmos; examples of it include alchemy, astrology, magic, even if these also include metaphysical gnosis.  Metaphysical gnosis in its pure form is apophatic or via negativa mysticism like that of Meister Eckhart or Marguerite Porete; it can be described also as the transcendence of subject-object or self-other divisions.

  From these remarks so far, we can see that roughly speaking, visionary mysticism like that of Hildegard of Bingen or even more clearly, Jane Leade, corresponds to  cosmological gnosis; apophatic mysticism like that in The Cloud of Unknowing corresponds to transcendent gnosis.  In cosmological gnosis, a  self-other dichotomy continues to exist—the visionary unites with and yet remains distinct from Christ—whereas in transcendent gnosis, the self-other distinction vanishes in the process of spiritual realization.  Naturally, this distinction is only indicative: for example, Jacob Böhme's work is famously visionary and cosmological, but also includes and, I have argued, has at its center an apophatic mysticism of the Ungrund[2]  Böhme's work exemplifies both categories, as in fact does the work of John Pordage and many other theosophers, to a greater or lesser degree.[3]  But in any case, mysticism represents direct experiential individual gnostic insight into the nature of the cosmos and of the divine.

   Although there are a wide variety of models for interpretation now available, they all give rise to a fundamental question concerning mysticism: is mystical experience a construct of the mystic, or is it as Eliade argued, an irreducible realization of  transconsciousness?  Stephen Katz, with his argument that mysticism must be studied as a function of language, is in effect arguing that mystical experience is a construct of the mystic, that is, a socio-linguistic construct.  In this view, one cannot separate mysticism from language, and this perspective in a period of about two decades at the end of the twentieth century, under the influence of French deconstructionism, became a dogmatic formulation, as when Don Cupitt in his Mysticism after Modernity asserted that “There is no such thing as ‘experience’ outside of and prior to language. . . . Language goes all the way down.  Language doesn’t copy or convey experience; language determines or forms experience as such. . . . Writing is redemption . . . Mysticism is mystical writing: that is, it is writing and only writing that reconciles conflicting forces and turns suffering into happiness.”[4]  This is quite a claim.


   I will say forthrightly here that I find this claim entirely unconvincing when applied in such a dogmatic and nuance-free fashion, even if as a writer and erstwhile literary scholar I find it somewhat tempting, rather like a chocolate niblet that turns out to be a laxative pill.  Attractive though such assertions might seem, they have unfortunate consequences when ingested.  What we have here is a false syllogism: some mystics write, therefore mysticism consists only in writing.  The problem here is this: that it makes mystical experience itself literary, and this goes counter to what we find in the actual writings of mystics like Eckhart, Jacob Böhme, or, to use twentieth-century examples, Franklin Fowler-Wolff or Bernadette Roberts.  It is clear in every case that they are not insisting on the redemptive power of the fact that they have written this or that down—rather, they are seeking to convey in writing a  transformative process that they have undergone.  This is important because if one accepts the notion that mysticism is fundamentally a linguistic phenomenon, one then is ignoring what someone like Roberts explicitly writes, that her writing is a record of her spiritual experiences, and in fact the logical conclusion of this ignorance is that one jettisons the fact that there is a mystical phenomenon here at all.  One is left with only the writing, as if it were not at all what its author writes of it, a record of an inner process, but rather only an object.

   So let me say outright that for our purposes here, we must acknowledge that there is a phenomenon to be considered that is not merely a written  object— rather, ‘behind’ the written work is a  mystical phenomenon in itself that the mystic experienced.[5]  When John Pordage, or  Jane Leade, or Bernadette Roberts write that their work is an effort to convey what they have experienced, it seems to me self-evident that barring evidence to the contrary, we should accept that there is a phenomenon, an experiential process that they underwent and of which their written work is a manifestation, a  sign, not the thing-in-itself.  The same is true, by the way, albeit much more problematically so, in alchemical treatises.  It seems to me very clear that alchemical treatises explicitly point toward (even if they also disguise) alchemical processes of various kinds: here too, the written word’s not the only thing.  It strikes me as a bit strange that one feels it necessary to assert the obvious, but so it is.

   Why? When we look at the extremes that various methodologies produce in this field, we can see the answer more clearly.  Let me offer two examples.  First, a strictly historiographic approach that seeks only to trace lines of influence may turn into a total denial of the religious phenomenon itself; historiography can become an attribution of Jacob Böhme’s work, say, largely or entirely to historical predecessors, and an ignoring of the actual work itself as a manifestation of Böhme’s own inspiration.[6]  Even worse, however, are the ideological or hypertheoretical abuses to which mystics can be subjected.  Here too, an example: Eric Voegelin has made commonplace in some political circles the notion that “gnosticism” or “gnosis” is somehow the origin of all that is evil in modernity and especially of totalitarianism.[7]  This belief of Voegelin’s has given rise to a bizarre form of ideological misinterpretation of mysticism and of the esoteric more generally, and eventually—under the influence of the so-called “linguistic turn” of French literary theory— has given rise to hypertheoretical works like those of Cyril O’Regan, which turn the works of mystics like Böhme into totally abstract objects evidently useful for constructing one’s own jargon-based linguistic system, but totally divorced from the actual phenomenon of mysticism.[8]


Imaginative Participation

   Yet if we acknowledge what is to me obvious, that there is a mystical process or set of experiences ‘behind’ what we read, this makes our work as scholars considerably more difficult.  If everything is merely “text,” well then we need only play with it or analyze it as text.  A nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.  But it quickly becomes clear to those with eyes to see that when we look at the field of esotericism, we are dealing with very complex currents of thought and kinds of experiences that do not always conform at all to contemporary perspectives.  What are we to make of Böhme’s immensely complex and often circular expression of a visionary cosmology deeply indebted to alchemy and astrology?  What are we to make of Pordage’s visionary journeys into spiritual realms, or of Fowler-Wolff’s accounts of absolute transcendence?  Here I would answer: as much as possible, we should seek to avoid making much of their accounts, and instead concentrate on seeking to imaginatively understand them on their own terms.

   Here I’m arguing that in the study of esotericism more generally, and specifically in the field of mysticism, it is essential for scholars to engage at minimum in a process of imaginative participation.  Sympathetic empiricism represents a middle ground between historiographic objectification on the one hand, and phenomenological subjectification on the other.  Sympathetic empiricism means that one seeks, as much as possible, to enter into and understand the phenomenon one is studying from the inside out.  The further removed historically that one is from such a religious phenomenon, the more valuable historiography is in recreating context, but without a sympathetic approach, in the field of esotericism, misunderstanding and reductionism become inevitable.


   Let me offer an example.  One of the clearest alchemical treatises I have ever seen is John Pordage’s “Letter on the Philosophic Stone.”  In it, he outlines a process of spiritual alchemy that although it is indebted to a similar process found in Jacob Böhme’s writing, is very much his own.  One could approach the contents of this letter from a variety of perspectives, and in fact once I translated it back into English, I did exactly that: I shared it in a discussion group with two prominent physicists, a scholar of alchemy, and a prominent Jungian analyst, among others.  One of the physicists sought to approach it from a perspective of contemporary physics; the scholar of alchemy approached it as merely another example of many such works; and the Jungian scholar converted it into a treatise on Jungian psychology.  All of them did shed light on the work, but were any of these approaches to become dominant in an interpretation of it, the treatise would have been lost in translation, obscured by or subsumed entirely into the method of approach.

   All scholarship, after all, is a kind of translation.  To translate a work, one has to do more than simply convey the literal meaning of what is there, even though the literal meaning is of course important.  But in a good translation, there is something more: the translator enters into the work itself through translating it.  There is something mysterious about this process; it is a kind of shared consciousness through the medium of written language.  This process takes place in literary translation, but it is even more evident in esoteric works that were written precisely in order to share a particular dimension of consciousness or process of inner awakening. 

   In fact, in a forthcoming book entitled Restoring Paradise: Western Esotericism, Literature, and Consciousness, I analyze precisely this literary and spiritual dimension of Western esoteric traditions, and argue that from antiquity through the present, one finds recurrent the theme of esoteric transmission through the written word.  Exemplary of this initiatory dimension of the written word is the work of O.V. de Lubicz Milosz, which is explicitly devoted to conveying Milosz’s esoteric realizations to a future student or, more precisely, disciple.  In other words, writing can function as a form of initiatory transmission, and in fact does so quite often in the West.  In this respect, the writing isn’t identical with the mystical experience, but rather is a medium intended by the author to awaken similar experiences in a reader.




A Case Study: Bernadette Roberts

   When we look at the work of Bernadette Roberts (1931-), we can see that her work also represents a kind of initiatory transmission through writing.  Bernadette Roberts’s work reveals a perspective in many respects akin to that of Franklin Fowler Wolff.    Both twentieth-century authors spent much of their lives in California, Wolff eventually in retreat in the mountains, Roberts in a California suburb.  Both authors followed essentially solitary paths and though they looked for assistance in existing traditions, both were determined to follow their own experiential realizations as being most the most vital path for themselves.  Like Wolff, Roberts, although Roman Catholic, is non-sectarian in her approach; like Wolff, her account is autobiographic and lays great emphasis on her experiences of spiritual realization.  Both authors’ writings take the form of a spiritual journal, and both had to grapple with realizations far beyond what they expected to encounter.  What is more, both authors came to a fundamental realization about the nature of consciousness and about the nature of self that informs everything that they subsequently wrote.   So parallel are their writings in these respects that one could well speak of them as representing the clearest examples of a twentieth-century American contemplative tradition.


   But all of these parallels should not obscure the uniqueness of Roberts’s spiritual experiences and writing.  Her two autobiographic books—The Path to No-self, and The Experience of No-self—are undoubtedly her best-known works, and it is important to draw on them.  But it is in a much lesser-known book entitled What is Self? A Study of the Spiritual Journey In Terms of Consciousness that Roberts’s spiritual life and experience is most lucidly and concisely outlined.  In What is Self?, Roberts grapples with the intellectual consequences of her most profound realization, implied in the titles of all of her books: that despite our familiar illusions about the solidity of our own egos, in fact self does not exist.  The experience of no-self, the truth that there is ultimately no ego, is what Roberts recognizes as the central truth of Christ’s own experience.  It is what is signified in Christ’s lament: “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” There is, Roberts realized, no more powerful and transformative truth at the center of Christianity than the realization of no-self, the complete transcendence of ego.

   As is evident from her life story, Roberts was a born gnostic.  Her first gnostic realization came at the age of five, she relates, when she had “an overwhelming experience.  From within there is a sudden infusion of tremendous power,” which she likened to what a balloon might feel when it is suddenly inflated (WS 168).  She went about asking others if this mysterious power affected them in the same way, but no one knew what she was talking about, and she soon learned not to mention it and even to be skeptical of such a experiences, a skepticism that she retained throughout her life.  Indeed, she later wrote that she has often thought that such skepticism is a kind of prerequisite for such experiences in that they may well prove to be misleading unless one retains a certain detachment from them.  This mysterious power stayed with her for four years, and then when she was nine, it withdrew.  But she realized, by the age of eleven, that she had a spiritual destiny and that what most people called a “self” was of no consequence whatever to the inner power that she felt within her.


   Roberts was born into an unusual situation in that her father was a devout religious man with an immense knowledge of Roman Catholicism and a large library.  She and her father had numerous long conversations about Christianity, and it is clear that she had a powerful and independent mind, not satisfied by platitudes and received verities.  Roberts had little faith in the doctrine of vicarious atonement, and she went through various crises of belief in which she found it necessary to take stock of what she could believe and what she could not accept within received Catholic doctrines.  She brought these questions to her father, and he replied that most important was “practice, practice, practice” of the faith.  This answer comforted her enormously, and she went on to heed those words and to delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries of Christianity. 

   Roberts went very far indeed into the mysteries of Christianity, much farther than most Christians would dream of.  But it is no doubt best to quote her directly, not least to give the flavor of her writing and of its detached, deeply personal and yet impersonal quality.  In What is Self? she writes of a “fine line,” “which is a line between the divine and the last vestige of self-awareness which, in the unitive state, is equally awareness of the divine.” Crossing this line, Roberts maintains, “is not in the books,” “nor can anyone know ahead of time what lies beyond this line because the line is the boundary of consciousness beyond which consciousness cannot go.” What is more, “the moment the line dissolves is unknown; it happens in great stillness and is not an experience.  No event could be less spectacular or more momentous.” “What characterizes the unitive state is the love, charity, and compassion of egoless giving and living, but what characterizes the no-self condition is knowledge of the ultimate Truth as it lies beyond all self; this is its sole purpose, revelation, and concern” (WS 186). 

   And there is more.  For “About a week after the line dissolved, when the mind deliberately tried to look within, instantly the divine Center (the living flame) quietly exploded and vanished.” “After this it is never again possible to look within; not only will the mind no longer function in this reflexive manner, but without a Center there is no “within” any more.  And without a ‘within’ there is no vessel to experience any emptiness; simply put, there is nothing left to BE empty” (WS 187).  Roberts’s account is eerily absent the usual sense of “I” and “other” precisely because nondualism is what she is trying to convey through language pervaded by exactly this dualism.  To overcome the dualism, her language becomes passive, or refers to “the mind,” rather than to “I”.  But it is clear in any case that she is conveying a journey on which, precisely when she has reached a turning point that appears to be a “final state,” that state turns out to be a relative realization that itself is later transcended.  One has always a sense that more is coming, that she is amidst a continuous process of realization, going further and further.


   Particularly interesting is Roberts’s understanding of Christ’s mission in the world, which she delineates in no uncertain terms because her understanding of Christ emerges out of her own direct spiritual experience.  Roberts writes, in The Path to No-self, that “I see Christ first and foremost as a mystic who had the continuous vision of God and whose mission was to share it, give it to others.  Few people see it this way; instead, they exploited Christ’s good works to justify their own busy lives, lives without interior vision and therefore lives without Christ” (124).  Performing our responsibilities as human beings, lending a helping hand, these are simply “what it means to be human; there is nothing particularly Christian about it.” She describes the gnostic experience of Christ as that of an inner flame that one cannot adequately express or convey to others, that one cannot use for one’s own ends, but that “has another purpose altogether, which is to burn [one] out through one’s very inability to express it.  It is as if the flame wears down the self through the self’s continual search for the flame’s adequate expression or manifestation” (126).  The experience of the inner flame and of selflessness, the life of interior vision, these are not ancillary, but in fact are what it means to follow Christ’s path.

   It is relatively easy to perceive the journeys and experiences of Roberts as pointing toward a particular enduring state of consciousness, a goal toward which one is striving.  But it is clear from her writings that although she certainly passed various “milestones” in realization, her contemplative practices were not static but dynamic, not frozen but living.  In Path to No-self, Roberts includes some of her verbatim journal entries, among them those referring to her realization of what it means to die to oneself and to have Christ living within one.  Her journal entries have an immediacy that the prose of her books do not; and she writes that she confides in her journal because she has no one with whom to share her experiences, no one to whom she could pass on the flame or to whom she could convey this new terrain she was traversing.  In fact, in her next book, The Experience of No-self, she writes of “how it seems contemplative authors take for granted that the more advanced soul goes no further when its interior life burst into a flame of love, and remains that way for the rest of its life—as if this were the end.  Actually, it is only another beginning” (127).  And this dynamic journey, because it is unique for each individual, is difficult if not impossible to truly share.


   Yet the journey through no-self that Roberts experienced, she tells us, is actually a journey that we are all destined to experience, for it is a fundamental part of growing old and dying.  Near the conclusion of The Experience of No-self, Roberts tells of how she told an elderly friend of hers named Lucille of her experience of no self.  Lucille thought Roberts’s revelation quite amusing, but also was surprised because she herself was also experiencing, at eighty-five, a gradual dropping-away of self and an entry into the next world.  She thought Roberts too young to be undergoing this experience, which is a central aspect of aging, but Roberts rejoins that the contemplative life represents a “speeding up” of natural processes.  And Roberts goes on to remark that “for those who have eyes to see, there is no place to look where this Goodness is not revealed.  This is the unquestioned object—indeed, the very subject—of the contemplative vision.” “To me,” she continues, “the contemplative’s sole function in society is to shed light on this dimension beyond self and to tell us about the crossing over, which is a journey few can talk about, but a journey everyone is ultimately destined to make” (203). 

   Roberts’s remark here is quite revealing.  The function of the contemplative or mystic is by its nature esoteric—for few have had the experience necessary—but “to shed light on this dimension beyond self” takes place through writing and speaking, no doubt to a limited audience.  It is not that Roberts has created a sect, though she might have, but rather that through her writing, she conveys her understanding and experience to what we might term a self-limited audience.  The writing is there for anyone, but only a comparatively small number of people will find it attractive; and of those, an even smaller number will presumably undergo experiences like those she chronicles.  The scholar may or may not undergo experiences like those of Roberts, but at the very least, the scholar’s function is to do justice to the subject, and at least to imaginatively participate in the process that Roberts is describing.


Direct Experience and the Study of the Esoteric

   Yet I will go further.  If the aim of Roberts’s work is to convey to us some sense of this dimension beyond self, then to genuinely understand her work, one must oneself have realized at least to a limited extent what she is seeking to convey, or at least imaginatively participate in her account.  Here I am suggesting what has already been for some time a debate within the Western academic study of Buddhism: is it ideal for a scholar to have directly realized the nature of awareness described in a work in order to truly understand it?  My answer is yes: while it is certainly possible to intellectually understand and even to vicariously participate in the process of spiritual awakening that Roberts describes, ideal is not only to read and analyze what she writes, but to undergo oneself the experiences that she describes.

   This brings us, of course, into an area that makes many scholars uncomfortable.  It is all very well, one might say, to examine esoteric texts, but when one seeks to experience for oneself what they describe, that is another matter entirely.  Indeed, the gist of investigation in this field seems to be going, if in any direction, then in the very opposite one: toward the complete divorce of the text from the lived experience, and even the denial of the lived experience.  I am not proposing that one turn the classroom or the scholar’s study into a hive of mystical experimentation, though that might be an improvement, but I am suggesting that in order to fully understand what we are studying, there is a point in this field—unlike in the study of history or literature—at which the practitioner’s expertise takes on more importance than purely academic knowledge.  While I am not insisting on the necessity of such lived or experiential understanding in the academic study of works of mysticism like those of Roberts or in the academic study of alchemical or theosophic works, I am insisting that we must as scholars keep this door open.  To close it is to insist on the study of such works as mere texts for our own aggrandizement, and nothing more; it is to close ourselves to understanding what such works are actually about.




   The scholarly study of esotericism is only in its early stages, and as the field develops, I have no doubt that various kinds of reductionisms will be introduced into it.  One certainly will see further evidence of the hyperintellectualism that came to pervade literary study in the late twentieth century, and an insistence that “language goes all the way down” will bring to the study of esotericism the same kind of hypertheoretical jargon that has infected other fields of study, notably literature.  What I am arguing here is, at base, this: that an esoteric religious phenomenon no doubt can become grist for someone’s mill, but approaches that do not keep foremost in mind fidelity to what one is seeking to understand may reveal much about the mind of the miller, but little or nothing about the esoteric subject in question (which might well have been ground into a heap of inconsequential dust).

   The study of esotericism in general, and the study of mysticism in particular, are in fact frequently the study of changes in consciousness, and as such call us more than any other area of academic study to retain openness of mind and at minimum imaginative participation in our subject.  Historical awareness and a soberness of mind leavened with healthy skepticism and a touch of humor are important, but arguably most important of all for the scholar of esotericism is a capacity for sympathetically entering into and presenting ways of understanding humanity and the world that are often fundamentally different than those in the “mainstream.”  The time for the kind of rationalist cataloguing of “superstitious errors of the past” on the order of Thorndike is long past, but other dangers still remain, ranging from gullible naïveté on the one extreme, and hyperintellectual objectification on the other.

   In the end, fidelity to one’s subject remains the surest touchstone.  What is one’s motivation in writing about alchemy, or Christian theosophy, or the mysticism of Bernadette Roberts?  The best scholarship is that which makes new means of understanding the world available to us in ways that correspond both to their own era and to our own.  The work of a scholar like Henry Corbin  remains as living and stimulating today as when it was written because it not only brings us into hitherto unknown regions of Islamic mysticism, but also offers a bridge between those regions and our own world, our own time.  The best scholarship is an act of creative discovery, and no field in contemporary scholarship is more suited to creative discovery than that of esotericism.  One cannot but look forward with a sense of anticipation for what is to come, for there remain whole worlds and worldviews yet to be discovered; for we have only begun to investigate what remains the largest body of unexamined work in all of the humanities.  But as the field develops, let us be sure to keep in mind that in the study of consciousness, while direct realization for oneself of a described experience is no doubt best, historical knowledge, imaginative participation and fidelity to our subject remain the surest ways not to go too far astray.



Don Cupitt, Mysticism After Modernity, (London: Blackwell, 1998)

Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Apocalypse: Jacob Boehme’s Haunted Narrative, (Albany: SUNY, 2002)

___, Gnostic Return in Modernity, (Albany: SUNY, 2001)

Paul Ricoeur, E. Buchanan, trs., The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper, 1967)

Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self, (Albany: SUNY, 1993)

 ___, The Path to No-Self, (Albany: SUNY, 1991)

___, What is Self? (Austin: M. B. Goens, 1989)

Arthur Versluis,  “Methods in the Study of Esotericism,” Part I, Esoterica IV(2002): 1-15.

___, “The Mystery of the Ungrund,Studies in Spirituality (11(2001): 205-211.

___, Restoring Paradise: Esoteric Transmission Through Literature and Art, (Albany: SUNY, 2003)

___, Theosophia: Hidden Dimensions of Christianity  (Hudson: Lindisfarne, 1994),

___, Wisdom's Children: A Christian Esoteric Tradition (Albany: SUNY, 1999)

___,  Wisdom's Book: The Sophia Anthology  (St. Paul: Paragon House, 2000).



[1] See the ASE website at

[2] See Arthur Versluis, “The Mystery of the Ungrund,Studies in Spirituality (11(2001): 205-211

[3] Jane Leade, for example, is almost exclusively visionary, and so is the work of her followers, like Ann Bathurst.  Franz von Baader's voluminous and highly intellectual work, on the other hand, exhibits almost no trace of the visionary, and in fact he was largely responsible for rediscovering Meister Eckhart in the nineteenth century, placing him more on the side of transcendent gnosis even if his work includes much along the lines of cosmological gnosis, i.e., insight into the spiritual aspects of nature.

[4] Don Cupitt, Mysticism After Modernity, (London: Blackwell, 1998), 74-75.

[5] The word “phenomenological” as we all know, can be used in a wide variety of ways.  In philosophical language, its use derives from Husserl, but in terms of religious studies it has taken on a related meaning, that of seeking to understand and to the degree possible realize and convey the meaning of a religious phenomenon on its own terms, or as it is in itself.  In Heidegger’s Being and Time, he holds that a phenomenon, and here we are applying this to a religious phenomenon, is not a product of human consciousness, but is revealed to human consciousness. Likewise Mircea Eliade, for his part, held that religious phenomena are ultimately a revelation of what he called the “transconscious”  and are by their nature irreducible. By contrast, Paul Ricoeur has argued that a  religious phenomenon is a “constituted given”—that is, it must be constituted or construed by an observer, and that one must analyze this hermeneutic on multiple levels. See Paul Ricoeur, E. Buchanan, trs., The Symbolism of Evil (New York: Harper, 1967), 10-15, 353.  Here I am using the word along the lines of Henry Corbin, whose work represents an effort to enter into the perspective about which he is writing.

[6] See, on this point, my forthcoming article on “Jacob Böhme and the Kabbalah” in a collection of articles edited by Wouter Hanegraaff and Jan Snoek. 

[7] I analyze Voegelin’s unfortunate confusion concerning “gnosticism” in a forthcoming article that I hope will help to overcome at least some of the unfortunate, still ramifying consequences of Voegelin’s error.

[8] See my review of O’Regan’s Gnostic Apocalypse and Gnostic Return in Modernity in the Journal of the AAR, (Fall, 2003).