Tuesday, April 19, 2011

SBL session on mystical praxis and experience

SBL SESSION ON MYSTICAL PRAXIS AND EXPERIENCE: For the November 2011 meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco I have organized a joint session of the Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism unit and the Religious Experience in Early Judaism and Early Christianity unit.


This session is dedicated to the memory of Alan F. Segal

This session focuses on how our understanding of ancient Jewish and Christian mysticism can be advanced by attention to its use of ritual praxis; study of mystical experience itself, insofar as we can gain access to it; and understanding this mysticism in the larger context of ancient Jewish and Christian religious experience.

April DeConick, Rice University, Presiding

April DeConick
A tribute to Alan F. Segal (5 minutes)

James R. Davila, University of St. Andrews
Ritual praxis in ancient Jewish and Christian mysticism (25 minutes)

Mystical experience is a black box to non-practitioners. Mystics engage in certain practices (prayer, rituals, etc.), which function as inputs; they have experiences inaccessible to anyone else (the black box); and, at least often, they give accounts of those experiences, which functions as the output. The experiences of ancient mystics are doubly inaccessible, since the practitioners are all dead and we are left only with such accounts of their experiences as have survived the vicissitudes of time. Our information for ancient mysticism comes from written instructions for engaging in mystical praxis; actual accounts of specific visionary experiences; fictional accounts of such experiences (which may nevertheless describe real praxis); and, in rare cases, architecture or artifacts tied to such rites. Such evidence can studied with the normal array of historical critical methods, but also by means of phenomenological comparison with other accounts of premodern esoteric rites and anthropological work with modern shamans and visionaries. This paper investigates how ritual praxis can contribute to our understanding of ancient Jewish and Christian mystical experience, drawing on a range of primary evidence from antiquity to the modern era and exploring the methodologies that can help us extract the maximum amount of of information from that evidence.

István Czachesz, University of Heidelberg
Experience in ancient Jewish and Christian mysticism: Insights from cognitive neuroscience (25 minutes)

Modern brain imaging technology gives us access to brain function and potentially allows us to understand mystical states of consciousness better. In the first part of my paper, I will briefly consider what contributions these technologies have already made; what further contributions they might make; and the methodological challenge of applying this information to the mystical experiences of long dead people. In the second part of my paper, I will address the question of how religious experience is connected to other aspects of religiosity. In particular, I will propose that a religious movement gains evidence for its core beliefs from some typical form of religious experience that requires the activation of particular brain areas. This hypothesis allows for predictions about the typical operations, group structure, and theological views of the movement. In the final part of my paper, I will consider how the hypothesis helps us understand ancient Jewish and Christian mysticism.

Break (10 min)

Frances Flannery, James Madison University
Mysticism as an Epistemological Sub-Category of Religious Experience: The case of the Testament of Abraham (25 minutes)

The work of the Early Jewish and Early Christian Mysticism Group significantly widened earlier definitions of mysticism (April DeConick, ed. Paradise Now: Essays on Early Jewish and Christian Mysticism, Atlanta: SBL Press, 2006). Very recently, the Religious Experience Section, as well as the work by Ann Taves (Religious Experience Reconsidered, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), helped to sketch the parameters for investigations on religious experience (Frances Flannery, Colleen Shantz and Rodney Werline, eds., Experientia: Volume One, Leiden: Brill, 2008). As these arenas of investigation have demonstrated, the definitions and the relationship of mysticism to religious experience are close and sometimes overlapping.

Here, I explore the idea that mystical practice is usefully construed as a sub-category of religious experience that entails perceived events rooted in individual bodily expressions of an epistemological personal revelation. Such a revelation, while not necessarily new within the mystical or religious framework, is singular in that it is freshly orienting and purposeful for the mystic. I investigate The Testament of Abraham, a late antique text of either Jewish, Christian, or “god-fearing” provenance. Regardless of its exact origin, the text encodes esoteric mystical practice, recognizable only to elite ritual experts, within a larger religious story, which is aimed at a general Jewish or Christian audience and which involves practice of a different order. I argue that this text’s encoding strategy speaks to the self-constructed, emic identity of some early mystics (whether Jewish or Christian), who saw themselves as standing within but above non-mystical strains of their religion, as a result of their own profound personal somatic and epistemological experiences. Finally, I argue for a categorical shift in our contemporary discussions of “mysticism” and “religious experience.”

Rebecca Lesses, Ithaca College, Respondent (15 minutes)

Pieter F. Craffert, University of South Africa, Respondent (15 minutes)

Discussion (30 minutes)