The study of mystical and ecstatic experience is out of fashion these days in the field of Religious Studies in the USA. Analysis of religious consciousness has been obscured by the interest in politics, history and sociology. The themes for meetings of the American Academy of Religion over the last few years have focused on Racism, Social Justice, Climate Change and Covid-19. There is little interest in what we might call the ‘inner dimension’ of religious experience. The modern study of ecstatic religious consciousness over the last thirty to forty years has largely been a study of objections to its subject matter.
We see this in Theology as well as Religious Studies. The general Religious Studies response to mystical experience has been that it should be left to the theologians. But the theologians don’t want it either- they are attempting to show that they are historians, linguists, and ethicists, as well as voices for social change. The study of mystical and ascetical theology has been largely de-emphasized in modern seminaries. Like the religionists, theologians have shifted their interests to the social and political world, often substituting classes in practical skills like small-business organization, finance, leadership and preaching skills. Ecstasy is the “hot potato” that no field wants. As the Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has recently noted, “Every religion seems to begin in mysticism and end in politics.” He compares mystical states to the hot lava of a volcano, and organized religion to the dry crust and ash that forms as it cools, settles and loses energy. In a similar way, he notes that the volcanic passions of mystical states turn into the organized religious institutions that show the symptoms of “rigor mortis.”
This paper will describe what is gained, and lost, by this limiting of religious inquiry. It will also discuss how ecstasy has been relocated into a variety of secular areas- violence, sexuality, music, sports. Ecstasy has lost its link with religion, and here we will explore how and why this has happened.
Dr June McDaniel is Professor Emerita in the field of History of Religions, in the Dept. of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston, in the USA. She is the author of three books on India, a co-edited volume on mysticism, a co-edited volume on Hindu religious experience, a book on current views of ecstasy in the field of Religious Studies, and many articles. Her MTS was in Theological Studies from Emory University, and her PhD was in History of Religions from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She spent two years in India, on grants from the American Institute of Indian Studies and as a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar. She also did research in Indonesia on a Collaborative International Research Grant from the American Academy of Religion, as well as on shorter research trips.