Encountering Mysticism: Esotericism and Practice in Three Traditions

William Young
Loyola College in Maryland

In looking back on the Society for Scriptural Reasoning meeting in Orlando in November 1998, [i] I am reminded of the anticipation, energy, and vitality of this group. The encounter among theologians, exegetes, and philosophers devoted to three different religious communities and traditions was an event in the truest sense of the word – an unprogrammed happening, open to surprise and novelty. At this meeting, the SSR took up the texts and interpretive practices of Muslim thought in detail for the first time in its history, thereby reaching new levels of exchange and debate.

In surveying the room, I was amazed by the gathering. In the circle of scholars were many of the most renowned theologians, exegetes, and philosophers in academia today. Yet why were they gathered here—what was their hope in coming to this meeting? Clearly successful in their fields, and members of established, flourishing religious communities, they nevertheless seemed to desire an alternative sort of community that is neither simply academic nor confessional. Whether because our modern world lacks a certain sort of community, or because the desire for such encounter grows from the internal dynamics of their religious communities, these scholars sought a mode of discourse and relation in the SSR that could not be found elsewhere. In the SSR, they came together in their academic and religious diversity and particularity. Drawing upon their scholarship, and speaking as members of their respective traditions, the conversation dynamically transformed their scholarly rigor and discipline into a real, human encounter. The contrast with the formal, monological presentations of the AAR was stunning: the SSR’s spirited debate and range of perspectives, along with the participants’ humor and warmth, made the discussion itself a sign of compassion and hope. Against the animatronic, sterile background of Disney, and the nearly-robotic format of so much scholarly discussion, scriptural reasoning’s vitality offered nothing less than the redemption and transformation of both intellectual and religious life.

After beginning with a prayer led by Robert Cathey, the group’s discussion focused on the issues raised in the papers and responses. Two issues served as the primary points of focus: “irremediable vagueness” in David Ford’s reading of Ephesians, and the esoteric and exoteric elements of mystical discourse. This second issue extended from a discussion of Elliot Wolfson’s paper into the work of Dr. Ahmad, as shall be discussed in more detail below.

1. Eschatological Fullness, Vagueness and Appropriate Clarity

Ford’s paper on Ephesians provoked a range of responses, many of which raised questions about Ford’s appropriation of pragmatic vagueness to interpret Paul’s understanding of “fullness” (pleroma). Ford began the discussion by clarifying the meaning of “vagueness.” Suggesting that “appropriate clarity” might be a better term to use, given the pejorative connotations of vagueness, he explained that permitting vagueness was an appropriate exercise of scriptural interpretation, given that the search for excessive clarity or precision may end up excluding or effacing the particularity of others.

Ford drew on his work on the trope of “the face,” which develops Emmanuel Levinas’ conception of the face as the site that opens subjectivity to responsibility and to infinity. For Ford, when one sees a face, its presentation retains a certain vagueness because it always already exceeds the cognitive and perceptive capacities of the one who perceives it. This excess allows for multiplicity and differentiation in its presentation to different subjects; subjects may perceive the face differently, yet nonetheless be experiencing its fullness. The face is “vague” because one’s understanding is not exhausted by the one event; one may discover more through another presentation of the face, or in conversation with someone else who has seen it. “Irremediable vagueness,” then, would mean that there is always more that can be discovered and understood, even when one has a determinate understanding. In such cases, the presentation’s vagueness does not signify lack, but rather indicates the hypersaturation of subjectivity by the phenomenon.

Ford’s discussion focused particularly on the face of Christ, as signified by the notion of pleroma in Paul’s theology. The fullness of Christ’s face does not lack in its manifestation of divine presence in Ephesians. Rather, on Ford’s view, the fullness of divine presence is apparent in its openness to further manifestation. Its fullness is an “overabundance of glory” which permits the face “to be itself in ways that go beyond specification” and to remain open to surprise. Ford argued that God’s fullness in Christ retains a vagueness insofar as its particular, distinctive manifestation to the Christian community remains open to further interpretation in other communities. Such surprise involves both continued interpretation within the Christian community, and openness to Jewish and Muslim revelation as well.

Here, Ford mined pragmatic thought in order to repair Christian interpretation of scripture, specifically with regard to supercessionist tendencies toward Judaism and exclusionary attitudes toward Muslim thought. To commence the discussion, he enacted a pragmatic reading of pleroma, especially with respect to the “gathering of all things” (Ep. 1.22). Ford demonstrated the value of this hermeneutical approach by interpreting the phrase “all things under Christ’s feet,” a phrase which can be interpreted in a supercessionist way. He challenged such supercessionism by arguing that both the “gathering” and the “under” should be understood in light of the Pauline emphasis on Christ’s servitude and his kenotic lordship. In this light, the fullness and gathering which Christ brings about retain an openness and attention to the particularity of those who are gathered and who share in the fullness. This “self-effacing” aspect of divine lordship allows for dramatic interaction with the particulars of creation, gathering peoples and groups in ways respectful of them as people, and open to the unpredictable, contingent elements of history and drama.

In his presentation, Ford attempted to address the concerns of several other Christian authors, who were particularly concerned that an account of “vagueness” would diminish the christocentric focus of Paul’s interpretation of scripture; if all things are only vaguely united or unified in and through Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, then it would seem that this event, which guides Paul’s hermeneutical practice, would itself be subject to another event for its complete determination. To summarize Ford’s response, he made vagueness an effect of the fullness of God’s revelation. Revelation’s “overabundance” or hypersaturation means that God’s freely given revelation itself unfolds into further events and encounters. Ford’s approach, then, does not submit God’s pleroma to an external criterion of reason that would predetermine or regulate Christian faith. While I personally found Ford’s response helpful (see Robert Cathey’s response for a view with which I agree), other participants may still have seen it as subjecting Christian interpretation to a philosophical, external critique, and this point was left unresolved by the meeting.

As Elliot Wolfson was unable to attend the meeting, Jacob Meskin presented his paper on Johann Kemper. Negotiating the subtleties of Wolfson’s rich text, Meskin focused on two topics: first, Kemper’s inversion of the nomian emphasis of rabbinic Judaism through kabbalistic hypernomianism; and second, the messianic nature of Kemper’s Christian kabbalah. As Meskin pointed out, Kemper’s Christian kabbalah raises questions about creation’s participation in the divine life, by appropriating the kabbalistic essences of God to Christ. In the kabbalah, according to Meskin, the Jewish people conform to God’s essences through the practice of the law. The enactment and fulfillment of the law thereby provided a way for Israel to share in God’s life, as obedience to the law becomes a way of embodying these essences. Thus, while Jewish kabbalah emphasizes the mystical, esoteric wisdom as the true understanding of God’s relation to the world, it also affirms exoteric, communal practice as an integral part of creation’s sharing in the life of God.

Kemper’s Christian kabbalah, however, complicates the picture. If Christ becomes the embodiment of these divine essences, and Jewish practice of law becomes its misinterpretation, then the symbolic consubstantiality of God and Israel through the law is lost. If the essences are appropriated to Christ, then the faithful are no longer able to share in God’s life as they were through the law. Indeed, part of Kemper’s argument is that those who practice the law fail to see how it is properly fulfilled by Christ. Ultimately, this leads to Kemper’s paradoxical, hypernomian interpretation of the law. Since a literal enactment of the law fails to recognize its spiritual truth (i.e., how it applies to Christ), then breaking the law, while maintaining an awareness of it, becomes a way to participate in the divine life. By breaking the law, while being aware of its significance, one presumably recognizes that Christ is its fulfillment.

In taking Christ as the fulfillment of the law, ritualized transgression becomes the practical analogue of Sabbatian mysticism. Breaking the law becomes a way to break with standard practice, much as Christian allegorical interpretation challenges the limits of rabbinic interpretation. Kemper’s approach thus represents both a practical and a hermeneutical ex-stasis from the community, as his work defines itself over against established Jewish practice. As Wolfson suggests in his paper, Kemper’s thought is not antinomian in a straightforward sense. It suggests that ritual itself, if practiced with the right intention, could likewise take on such messianic significance. However, such “right intention,” which clearly has a christocentric character, remains emblematic of supercessionism. Thus, while Kemper’s thought suggests an immensely complex and intricate mode of interpretation—from which, as Steven Kepnes has noted, scholars from all three traditions may learn—Kemper’s christocentric hypernomianism has disturbing implications for the Jewish community. Crystallizing the problematic richness of Kemper’s thought, Meskin said, “As a Jew, I’m deeply horrified. As a philosopher, I’m very impressed.”

Meskin also addressed the nature of Kemper’s argumentation and kabbalistic exegesis. Clearly, one goal of Kemper’s esoteric interpretation of ritual was to argue against rabbinic interpretations of the law. However, his numerological arguments, and his use of kabbalistic symbolism, depended upon rabbinic interpretive practices that are in some sense foreign to Christian discourse. His numerological interpretations, for example, would have little significance within a Christian community. Kemper’s work, then, while clearly supercessionist in its form, nonetheless seems to require both Jews and Christians to move toward an esoteric understanding of their practices. The incorporation of kabbalistic interpretation into Christian discourse, along with the transformation of Jewish nomianism, would represent two sides of his messianic self-understanding. As Wolfson puts it, “In spite of his conversion to Christianity and the apparent repudiation of Judaism, in his mode of argumentation, Kemper remained faithful to his rabbinic training, for the most meaningful way that he expressed his Christian faith was through textual interpretation. In particular, the hermeneutical act of disclosing the mysteries hidden beneath the surface of the Zohar is for him the true sign of messianic conviction and the primary means by which one attains the ultimate salvation of mind and body.”

2. Exoteric and Esoteric Discourse

The discussion following the first two presentations focused squarely on the issue of esotericism and its implications for communal interpretation and practice. The discussion developed points suggested in the papers themselves, as well as in several of the abstracts (particularly those of James Buckley, Peter Ochs, and Robert Gibbs). Ford’s and Meskin’s presentations led to comparisons between the esotericism of Kemper and that of the letter to Ephesians. The group’s view was that Kemper’s esotericism is a more extreme and more supercessionist form of mysticism than that found in Ephesians (when read pragmatically, as Ford does). That is, Kemper’s approach brings about a “subversion through recapitulation,” repeating Jewish ritual and kabbalah so as to turn it against itself, and to see itself as replaced by faith in Christ. Kemper’s reading would seem decidedly unpragmatic, as he seeks an extreme theoretical clarity without concern for its effect on the Jewish community and its particular practices. By contrast, as James Buckley suggested, Ephesians seems to “gather up” things in a different way; by taking things up one at a time, it practices a more particularistic, responsible form of incorporation that recognizes the distinctiveness of those so incorporated. Buckley’s point resonates with Ford’s pragmaticist reading of Ephesians, in that attention to particulars and a peaceful relation are constitutive of the “fullness” of Ephesians.

While the discussion established a contrast between the “gathering” of Ephesians and Kemper’s mode of interpretation, the particulars of Kemper’s approach should be kept firmly in mind. As Wolfson suggests, in both Kemper’s interpretive practices and his emphasis on the particulars of law, he differs from the more common antinomianism of other Christian kabbalists. While his approach does seek to transcend legalism, his attention to the particulars of the law nonetheless preserves its concreteness. His work thus retains a rabbinic approach even if he appears to distance himself from it. Kemper remains singular, as Robert Cathey suggested in the discussion, in large part because he worked on both sides of the boundary between Christianity and Judaism.

From the discussion of the parallels and contrasts between Kemper’s mysticism and a Pauline figuration of fullness, the meeting turned to Dr. Israr Ahmad’s paper. Speaking with both humility and strength, Dr. Ahmad delivered a powerful discussion of mysticism within Islam—in particular, of what he termed the “Qur’anic mysticism of the prophet.” Distinguishing the mysticism of the prophet from the mystical thought embodied in Sufism, he developed the central features of the mysticism lived and expressed by Muhammad and his companions. As will be discussed further below, his paper both contributed a stimulating analogue to the Jewish and Christian mysticisms previously discussed, and provided a strong argument regarding the relation between the esoteric and exoteric elements of mystical thought.

Dr. Ahmad noted that for the prophet, mysticism is fundamentally an act of beatification, as the soul is drawn into closer relation to God. Three levels of progressive intensification mark the soul’s journey—the stages of Islam, Imam, and Ihsan. Islam is the state of belief and faith that makes one a member and citizen of the Muslim community, as one begins to believe that Allah is the one God. While this stage is suited for participation in community—perhaps, one may say, much as the Gentiles become “citizens” in God’s household in Ephesians—the relation deepens in the stage of Imam , as the soul is drawn more intensely toward God. At this stage, the soul does not simply believe, but the truths of faith “enter the heart,” as one begins to voluntarily and freely love God. Moreover, one is freed from fear. This prepares the way for the third stage, Ihsan , where one is drawn into a bilateral relationship with God. In Ihsan , one remembers God’s commands in one’s heart and thereby develops a friendship with God. Both God and the soul are now drawn toward one another. In the mystical literature of Islam, if one extends one’s hand toward God, God will extend God’s arm in return; if one begins to walk toward God, God will run toward you. While the reciprocity is hardly symmetrical, the keeping of secrets and intimate sharing of the heart constitute a friendship, as one is freed from all fear and grief in and through God’s intimate presence.

This highest stage of the mystical journey, the ecstatic union of Ihsan , embodies the esoteric element of Islamic mysticism. Such interiorization, and the beatification of the soul illuminated by the love and power of God, signifies a spiritual, mystical meaning of Islam. Yet while Dr. Ahmad’s discussion of the esoteric mysticism of the prophet was fascinating in itself, he emphasized that such an esoteric discourse of beatification finds its fulfillment in the exoteric practices of Islam. Ihsan , as a life of holiness, requires engagement with the world, seeking to extend God’s illuminative and redemptive life into the community and the world. Esoteric faith, which frees one from fear and grief, bears fruits including a struggle for equality and justice within the social order, a just family system, and rooting out injustice and exploitation. Thus, within Islam, the esoteric knowledge of Qur’anic mysticism unfolds into concern for exoteric practice, infusing the community with divine presence and establishing a relation that redeems and heals suffering.

3. Mysticism and Scriptural Reasoning

The connection between esoteric reasoning and exoteric practice in Dr. Ahmad’s paper establishes striking parallels with Christian mysticism. It also permits a development of the activitiy and methodology of scriptural reasoning on the topic of mysticism. First, the parallel with Christianity. As Lewis Ayres discussed, the mystical union proposed by Bernard of Clairvaux, through the “kiss of the mouth” of Christ, is directed toward establishing order and harmony within the monastic community. Beatific union does not lead away from the world, but rather to an ongoing ascesis and reshaping of the community itself. Likewise, one could look at the mysticism of Catherine of Siena, who contemplates Christ’s suffering as a gift signifying God’s generosity; this contemplation leads to discernment and concern for justice, in attention to the suffering of one’s neighbor, as evinced by her devotion in both life and letters to the practice of justice and charity within the Church. In her Dialogue , Catherine outlines three stages of relationship with God—servant, friend, and child—which display a progressive unity and the development of intimacy and sanctification. Both cases establish relations between esoteric and exoteric discourse: from an external perspective, esotericism remains distinct from the exoteric practice. Yet, if mystical union with God finds its fulfillment in the upbuilding of harmony and peace, and the extension of citizenship in God’s household to others, then esoteric wisdom informs and inspires the practice within the community. This clearly parallels Dr. Ahmad’s discussion of Ihsan ‘s emphasis on justice and social practice as constitutive elements of mysticism.

The parallels between Qur’anic mysticism and certain varieties of Christian mysticism help to illuminate the relation between wisdom and practice in these traditions. While these parallels themselves are interesting, the question remains as to how scriptural reasoning interprets such parallels. For, as James Buckley suggests, one must be careful in negotiating the relationship between the universal concept of “mysticism” and the particular, embodied practices it represents; such mystical “experience” may be inseparable from the cultural-linguistic systems in which it arose, and from the narratives and scriptures which shape and read members of these communities. Thus, comparative and/or dialogical attempts to understand the parallels between different mysticisms risk effacing particularities in their search for conceptual common ground. Through a focus on the particular differences of these three traditions, scriptural reasoning seeks to understand them in ways that contribute to the richness of each community, rather than seeking a universal, nonparticular core which they share.

In this light, one could extend the proposal set forth in Peter Ochs’ response to Wolfson’s paper on Kemper. I apply this approach to Dr. Ahmad’s work as a gesture of hospitality and in gratitude for Dr. Ahmad’s generous sharing with the SSR. Ochs suggests that the SSR take up formal practices of reasoning as a particular form of intercommunal, esoteric discourse. Such esotericism would remain distinct from the practices of communities; however, as a self-critical act of abstraction, it allows scholars to clarify the modes of reasoning and representation in use in the particular communities, and to do so for the sake of the work and practices of those communities themselves. Such abstraction would not make the universal, abstract claims of academic study, but rather would remain linked to the specific communities and traditions which are under study here. Ochs, then, proposes that the SSR provide a sort of esoteric figural interpretation, much like the mysticism of Paul, Kemper (perhaps), or the Prophet: an esotericism directed toward the transformation and development of communal practice.

Ochs gives two examples of the formal abstraction such reasoning entails in the symbolic language of relations. In the Jewish and Christian texts discussed by Ford and Wolfson, we see an incarnational relation of God to humanity (Ri) and a messianic relation of God to creation (Rm), which together, one might say, signify both the illuminative and redemptive elements of divine love. On Ochs’ view, such formal reasoning ensues from study of the particular relations established through the figural interpretations of the Jewish and Christian communities. These relations, I would argue, can be extended in light of Dr. Ahmad’s discussion: the incarnational relation, manifested in Jesus’ Incarnation and the shekhinah, could be correlated with God’s beatific indwelling of the soul in Ihsan . Moreover, the messianic relation (Rm) could be extended to the concern for equality, justice and law, as an intensification of practice in the world. Thus, what Dr. Ahmad terms the esoteric and exoteric aspects of Islamic mysticism would correlate with the polar relations found in Kemper’s kabbalistic reasoning. Further, Qur’anic mysticism would parallel the polar relations between the fullness of Christ’s peaceful indwelling and the practice of harmony described in Ephesians.

Establishing such formal parallels between the scriptural reasonings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam need not reduce or efface the particularity of each community. Rather, as Ochs has suggested, such formal reasoning and abstraction can help scholars to recognize the rule that guides their practices of reasoning and repair within their respective communities. Recognizing these rules can then serve as guidance for future scriptural interpretation—responding to the puzzlement one faces in scriptural interpretation today. Such a response is a form of “musement”—an attempt to discern and reason that seeks to illuminate and heal, in a particular context. As Ochs has written elsewhere, “The consequence of Musement is, instead, to clarify precisely how, on this occasion this God will speak again to these philosophers, so that they may once again clarify the rules of philosophic correction.” [ii] Such puzzlement, it would seem, is found both within and between these communities of scriptural readers. By clarifying the rules that emerge from these readings of scripture, both the scholars of the SSR and their communities can learn how to hear God faithfully in today’s world.

In these three scriptural traditions, God is known via the rational relations which, as Ochs and Ford suggest, “repair suffering” and “bring to light.” In what Lewis Ayres termed an “ascesis of unknowing,” the darkness of God illuminates the world of faith and seeks to repair the darkness of suffering and chaos. In the papers’ and discussion’s focus on such illuminating and reparative relations, I am reminded of the work of Augustine, the patristic semiotician for whom the signs of scripture bring both illumination and healing—the two most powerful figures for beatitude in the Confessions . Moreover, discovering a similar structure of reasoning within the three traditions signals a hope for the group’s ability to explore these reasonings together. Thus, if the SSR itself becomes an esoteric mode of reflection, it too may bring illumination and healing within, between, and beyond these communities.

To conclude this discussion, I would simply add that the SSR’s course of study has brought surprising and creative forms of illumination to the group. These discoveries, undoubtedly, have been a challenge for many members of the group, both those who remain strongly active and those who do not. Many of the issues and contrasts first noted in Orlando have remained central to the ongoing discussion. For example, as Robert Cathey noted in his response, Judaism and Christianity differ markedly from Islam on the notion of the covenant. [iii] In readings of Pharaoh’s hardened heart (the theme for the 2000 meeting), these differences have been illuminated in surprising and important ways, and become central to the discussion. The illumination of the differences, however, have not only clarified understanding of each tradition; in our differences, we begin to clarify the relations between the traditions as well. It may be, then, that these differences are precisely the stones marking the path the SSR must travel, as this meeting began to show us through the work of these authors.


[i] This essay is a report and analysis based upon videotapes of the presentations and discussions of the 1998 SSR meeting. My thanks to the following individuals: Bill Elkins, who provided the videotape of the meeting to me (and maintains the SSR website where papers and abstracts were presented); Najan Hussain and Farrukh Siddiqui, whose videotaping allowed me to revisit the discussion in detail, and Ahmed Afzaal, whose report on the meeting, “Rendezvous in Orlando,” published in The Qur’anic Horizons , December 1998, provided helpful factual and analytical detail with regard to the text and context of Dr. Ahmad’s paper.

[ii] Peter Ochs, Peirce, Pragmatism, and the Logic of Scripture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 289.

[iii] By this, I mean that the historical, particularistic covenant of God with Israel, and the affirmation and intensification of this covenant in Christ, do not have a direct parallel within Islam. I do not mean to say that there is no notion of the covenant in Islam whatsoever, but rather to mark its distance from a Jewish or Christian understanding of this relation. It may be, then, that these differences are precisely the stones marking the path of the SSR, a path on which Ford, Wolfson, and Ahmad may be our guides.