ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
CHAPTER SIX: THE OCCULT IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
What is Spirituality?
Today we hear a great deal about “spirituality,” one of many ambiguous weasel words. Of course, in sensu strictu it means “the life of the soul.” But this tells us nothing, because, what is the life of the soul? I must confess that I do not know. Some important clues to it lie in the discipline within religious studies called the “psychology of religious experience.”
The Varieties of Religious Experience
Around a century ago, the psychologist William James was invited to give the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. These were published as Varieties of Religious Experience, which still remains as one of the principal studies in this area. Most of what James said and wrote applies equally well to esoteric and occult experiences. This is especially true of James’s chapter on mysticism. James cited four characteristics of mysticism. (1) Ineffability, the fact that most people who have had what they feel are mystical experiences find no way of communicating them. Words do not suffice. Instead, mystical teachers almost invariably focus on the disciplines which they have undertaken in order to have the experience, promising that the person can only discover it personally. (2) Noetic quality. Mystical states are, nevertheless, “states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after-time.” (3) Transciency. Mystical states are brief, and rarely last longer than half an hour, or, at most, an hour or two. When they fade, their vividness often can only be imperfectly reproduced. (4) Passivity Although the mystic may engage in various kinds of disciplines, the experience itself simply happens. It is not voluntary. It can be prophetic, or, as in the case of occultists, result in automatic writing, or mediumistic trances.
James cites a passage from the poetry of Walt Whitman as a classical expression of mystical experience outside traditional religion:
I believe in you, my Soul
Loaf with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat. . .
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that
Pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that thehand of God is the promise of my own,