Project of IISHJ

The New Mysticism


Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1989, (vol. 17 no. 4, p45-48)

Fundamentalism is not the major religious challenge to humanism and to Humanistic Judaism. The premises of this faith are so far removed from the thinking patterns of most Jewish humanists that they are unlikely to be seduced by it.

The real challenge comes from closer to home — from the success story of a new liberal religion.

The now deceased “giver” of this new liberal religion is Joseph Campbell, who achieved national fame through his television interview with Bill Moyers. This interview, turned into a best-selling book called The Power of Myth, popularized the religious ideas of this long-time professor of mythology at Sarah Lawrence College.

Campbell has taken the ideas of the New Age mysticism and synthesized them into a new, powerful, attractive spiritual alternative. This New Age mysticism has been around in popular form for more than twenty years. But Campbell has effectively dramatized its answers for a wider public than its usual devotees.

New Age mysticism has its roots in many places: in the theology and practices of Eastern religions, in the psychological views of Carl Gustav Jung, disciple and rival of Freud, and in the self-esteem movements of modern psychotherapy. The trigger for its growth was the deep disillusionment with the moral authority of America and the Western world during the troubled times of the Vietnam War. This despair was reinforced by the romantic idealism of the political New Left and the rising skepticism about the value of science, reason, and technology in an age of nuclear weapons.

Spirituality replaced intellectuality as the dominant need of the new generation of “seekers.” Gurus and ashrams multiplied. Meditation and yoga became popular exercises. Mind power and holistic healing seized center stage. New sects and spiritual centers sprang up in profusion. The Age of Aquarius was born.

Joseph Campbell is the voice of this new religion, which is radically different from the equally successful fundamentalist religion that confronts it. What does he teach?

Seven basic principles of the new religion are articulated in The Power of Myth.

  1. The Judeo-Christian tradition, in its institutional form, is a dogmatic, self-righteous tradition. It is officially blind to the splendors of other great world religions, which have much more spiritual truth to offer.
  1. True reason is not science. It is a powerful intuition that enables us to discern the spiritual reality that infuses the material world.
  1. Behind the seeming disorder and chaos of worldly events lies a spirit of harmony and love. From the perspective of eternity, what appears to be evil through parochial eyes fits in with an ultimate universal good. The face of God is sometimes cruel and ugly. But, in the end, it is awesomely beautiful. 
  1. The goal of life is an inner acceptance and serenity, which comes from the realization that divinity is not far away but within oneself, within one’s mind, heart, and soul. Looking inward becomes the comforting alternative to the frantic extroversion of modern society.
  1. Every spiritual search is individual and personal. Any attempt to create dogmatically a single path to God is a violation of human dignity. Each person must find his/her own way. The true spiritual leader is a guide, not a dictator.
  1. All mythologies are symbolic reflections of our spiritual quest. Since they are symbols, they must not be taken literally. Nor is one mythology superior to another. All of them are feeble attempts to describe a reality, an overarching unity of all things, which even the word God is inadequate to denote.
  1. God infuses nature in the same way that he infuses humanity. The love of nature and of other people are reflections of the love that pervades the universe. A new mythology is needed to fully express the new awareness of the unity of our planet with all life and with all people.

From a humanistic perspective, many aspects of this new religion are very attractive.

It is anti-dogmatic, chastising all traditional Western religions for their parochial exclusiveness and their dogmatic claims to absolute truth. It is individualistic, affirming the right of individuals to be the masters of their hearts, minds, and behavior and acknowledging that no institutional pronouncement stands higher than the individual conscience. It is liberal and open, denying that there are any final answers to religious questions and welcoming truth from wherever it may come. It is people-centered, emphasizing that divine power does not rest in some distant supernatural realm but is pantheistically present in each and every human being. It is dignity-affirming, claiming that the individual human mind is capable of extraordinary powers, which can be utilized for empathetic understanding and self-healing.

It is environmental, denouncing the notion that humanity bears some kind of divine mandate to do with our planet as it wishes and emphasizing the evolutionary connection of the human race with all life. It is one-worldly, condemning archaic nationalism and advocating the concept of world citizenship. It is this-worldly, finding spiritual significance in the here and now and exulting in the possibilities of everyday living.

These humanistic elements make this new religion far more attractive than the old theistic religions. Liberals can easily identify with the nondogmatic, democratic, and individualistic character of this spiritual message. But, despite its humanistic aura, it is not humanism.

 There are certain major differences between the New Age mysticism and the humanism of Humanistic Judaism.

Reason is not intuition. Intuition is the beginning of knowledge. But reason is the sober judge that distinguishes between realistic intuitions and crazy ones. Feeling that something is real is no indication that it is. Where public evidence is absent, we remain appropriately agnostic. Not knowing is better than pretending to know.

Autonomy is not truth. Dogmatic religion makes tradition the arbiter of truth. But the polar opposite is equally invalid.

Leaving the truth up to each individual conscience makes it hopelessly subjective. Individuals can be as crazy and out of touch with reality as can institutional traditions. The truth is not democratic. The person with the evidence outvotes the masses with none. One ought to be free to run one’s life in accordance with one’s wishes. But one is not free to remake the universe. Reality is not something to be invented. It is something to be discovered. And no individual conscience can make it other than it is.

Emotions are in human beings. Love is marvelous. But it is not floating in the outer reaches of outer space. It is a function of a human nervous system and does not exist independent of the physical reality that makes it possible. The attraction of atom for atom is not love. The balance of nature is not love. And to call it love is to deprive the word of any concrete meaning. The universe is not emotional. We are.

The unspeakable is unspeakable. It is amazing how much space in mysticism is devoted to describing what is indescribable. Mythological symbols are useless if what they are pointing to is, in the end, inconceivable. (The incomprehensible is, by its very nature, “the emperor’s clothing,” an informational zero.) In their mysterious ability to mean anything we can think of, these symbols can provide no guide to life. Reverence is more appropriately directed to what makes human survival possible. Human solidarity appears more suitable than spiritual vagueness. The so-called spiritual awareness of the mystical experience may indeed be euphoria, but euphoria without knowledge.

One is not better than two. The monotheistic notion that unity is better than diversity in not borne out by reality. Indeed, there may be some single conscious force that underlies the whole universe. But why is that better than having two conscious forces or no conscious direction at all? By implication, if a single conscious force governs the world, then a single conscious force should govern the state, the family, the individual. And if this single divinity speaks with contradictory voices through a billion different individual consciences, of what significance is its unity?

Harmony is an illusion. There is order in the universe. But there is not compulsory moral order, as far as we can see. The law of gravity is as happy to cooperate with the criminal as with the saint. The evidence of our experience does not support the notion that some kind of fundamental harmony pervades nature. Chicken dinner fits harmoniously into the agenda of people. But it is not quite so wonderful for chickens. Confrontation is as intrinsic to the universe as harmony.

Evil is evil. Attempts to rescue the reputation of God by making the bad appear to be good are contrived. Some suffering may lead to character improvement. But some suffering is intrinsically evil. One would be hard put to find the mysterious good in the Holocaust. Would we want to say that those who died had simply been expiating the sins of previous lives in accordance with the decrees of karma? The most dignified thing to do with evil is to let evil be evil. In that way, what is good and wonderful has some real significance. Life is no less meaningful because there is no ultimate justice in the universe. The meaning of life comes from the possibility of satisfying human desires — not from a perfect universe.

Comfort is not dignity. Serenity is an inappropriate ambition. In a world of danger and frustration, to be on the alert is a more realistic goal. Given the Jewish experience, nervousness is a more appropriate response to reality than is serene faith. Alertness needs rest and relaxation to sustain it. Meditation for relaxation is a welcome addition to the human possibility. But meditation to produce fearlessness and the illusion that all is ultimately well is self-destructive. Human dignity is the willingness to confront the world on its realistic face, even when it frightens us. Only then can we be motivated to change it for the better.

There are many kinds of spirituality. The spiritual experience is an experience of transcendence, the experience of feeling part of something greater than ourselves. Our first spiritual experience is the connection we feel as infants with our mother and father. Later on it expands to include our family, our community, our planet, and our universe. Spiritual experiences, if not carried to the excess where individual identity is lost, are important inspirational opportunities. But they are perfectly natural. They do not need a supernatural explanation. They do not need to be overromanticized so that the nonspiritual events of life appear insignificant. They are an important part of life. But they do not define the meaning of life, which exists in a variety of different experiences. Being spiritual all the time is as boring as being competitive all the time. In the end, spiritual events should lead us outward to our connections with other people and nature — not inward into self-absorption.

A humanistic Jewish response to the New Age mysticism is friendly but cautious. It applauds the humanistic dimension but notes the same avoidance of reality that characterized the religions that preceded it. One of the great challenges to the integrity of humanism in this age of free creativity is that frequently the old religion is dressed up in more attractive, humanistic clothing. But it is still basically the old religion.

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Note on sources: The Jewish Humanist  was the monthly newsletter of The Birmingham Temple. The periodical Humanistic Judaism was the quarterly journal of the Society for Humanistic Judaism. The Center for New Thinking was Wine’s adult learning program beyond Humanistic Judaism. Selections from Wine’s books are appropriately cited.
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