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Mysticism Without God

Giovanni Cucci, SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Wed, Mar 31st 2021


“Mysticism presents itself as the space where a speculative study of religious facts meets the need to live religious experience in the milieu of the advanced secularism of western society.”1

The men and women of our secularized society still live under the action and sign of rasonnierende ffenlichkeit (public reasoning) of Kantian memory, which makes the truth the result of a rational, discursive and collective work of the whole of humanity. This does not mean that this culture of formal rationality, typical of the Enlightenment, is not today undermined by the return of the irrational and of individualism, or by the natural tendency of man toward the magic sense of things and to symbolic function. This is how secular analysts explain the current interest in mysticism.

Not being able to accept as true the interpretation which Catholic theology gives of mysticism, they explain the mystical experience as a reaction to the crisis of culture derived from the Enlightenment: a simplistic reaction of those who want to overcome the opposition between religious experience and reason, perhaps after struggling with it themselves. “If postmodernity, as the time of the end of the Enlightenment myths, is witnessing the return of the religious and new demand for meaning, it is also undergoing the charm of those spiritual realities that express the desire for creativity and self–discovery beyond the disappointments and failures attributed to reason.”2

It was Norberto Bobbio who recognized that “because the great answers are beyond the reach of our mind, man remains a religious being, despite all the demythologizing processes of secularization, all the claims of the death of God that characterize the modern age and even more so the contemporary age.”3

An exhumation

Clearly, these facts and considerations are not considered as sufficient proof by the Union of Atheists and Rationalist Agnostics. They have published a work by Fritz Mauthner (1849–1923), whose first German edition, in 4 hefty volumes, dates back to the years 1920–1923: Atheism and its History in the West. It certainly is a minor work in the history of philosophy. It is, however, entitled to a place both for its dependency on the thought of Ernst Mach, a contemporary of Mauthner, and for the influence that it exercised on the thinking of Ludwig Wittgenstein as well as on the analytic philosophy of language and on the art of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It seems to us that its publication in Italian was done not to fill a lacuna in the history of philosophy but rather as a catalyst to reignite the languishing discussion on atheism.

This work of Mauthner stands together with another of his works, Contributions to a Critique of Language, first published in German in 3 volumes from 1901 to 1903. In light of the empirical theory of knowledge, Mauthner denies language the possibility of knowing reality. He posits that language is purely conventional and equates language and thought while proposing that the superseding of language is represented as redemption from the “superstition of the Word” by means of a “mysticism without words.” Since reality is always mediated and limited by the use of language, only “a mystic contemplation” could capture the true essence of the world.

This linguistic criticism leads to the senselessness of any statement about God. The history of atheism is the history of the concept of God and, given the premise, it is also the story of free thought that has evolved and interweaved with the history of unbelief, heresy and philosophy. For Mauthner, criticism of theism is born from the criticism of language, which also is. If the criticism of language lowers the words to “images of images of images,” each god is a verbal god that can be demolished. The history of atheism documents the effort to overthrow the supreme Name that recapitulates all the forms of verbal idolatry and to free man from psychological and political subjugation to the power of the Church.4

It is a little ironic that an author who wrote seven large volumes on the fallacies and fatuousness of language, with all this entails, was clearly not able to free himself from language. As for mysticism without words, a theory which purports to establish that language and God are nonsensical, it might be possible to recover the concept. referring it only to language and limiting it to the poetic world. As a verse by Pascoli suggests, “Dreaming is the infinite shadow of Truth.” In a dream, we can experiment with what words never satiate which is thirst for knowledge and truth. It remains the case that Christian mysticism is something other than a dream.

Mysticism and Atheism

Among many definitions or descriptions of mysticism, we favor that of Saint Thomas, who refers to Christian mysticism as: “The knowledge of God’s will or goodness, knowledge that is effective and experimental, when a man experiences in himself the taste of God’s sweetness and pleasure in God’s divine will.”5  This is the definition of an experience of “unity,” of an experience that the human spirit has of the Absolute in the time of this present life.6 If that is how it is interpreted – and this is how it should be interpreted in its Trinitarian and Christological aspect – is it perhaps possible to think that Christian mysticism is a yeast for the contemporary world? We think not.

The current rebirth of religiousness should not deceive us. It is true that nowadays, the acceptance of religious phenomena is widespread, from those that retrieve ancient traditions to those of a more fundamentalist brand. But in a society and a culture of crisis, these are explainable as the search for the final meaning of reality and of life. When they are not external and emotional phenomena, they betray their own superficiality in the eyes of those who consider the existing gap between the declared Christian faith and the practices of Christian morality. “As in the far gone Alexandrian age, at the sunset of the Hellenistic civilization and with it of the ancient world, we see a turgid religious phenomenon where improper forms of religiosity and syncretism are interwoven with authentic religious experiences and sometimes they coexist in the same person.”7

So it is an exaggeration to speak of mysticism in this context. Rather, it seems to revive the theory made famous by Rudolf Otto according to which the divine and the religious can be grasped not with rationally lucid concepts, but with irrational and sentimental skills that man feels when he sinks below his humanity. That is when he rebels and yearns for the mysterium dwelling above him.8  Our current age is precisely the epoch of the science of language, of phenomenologies, of hermeneutics that seem hit by shortages of expression only when philosophical discourse must address the question or the problem of God. It is the era of agnosticism and still, in many ways, of atheism, which lives undetected with the concerns raised by the search for meaning. However, it is possible that the agnostic or even the atheist, while failing to escape from an exclusively worldly perspective, may live a “spirituality” which in the believer amounts to a tacit invocation of the heart.9  And this echoes the paradoxical prayers of Hemingway, of Zinoviev and Caproni, which give grounds for Wittgenstein writing, “To pray is to think about the meaning of life.”10  It is mysticism without God. This is how Rossana Rossanda and Sergio Quinctius saw it, one ascribing it to irrationalism, the other to aestheticizing syncretism, both concerning the immanent concept of human life.

In all this, however, there is a positive fact. Religious experience, at least, the idea and the desire for religious experience, are not dead things. The civilization that has arisen knows in its own way its own religiosity, complex, subjective, personal, tormented, capable of impulse and closure, fluid, but not to the point of declaring the presence and significance of Christianity outdated. For its part, the Christian always hopes that the Lord “will give to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, with the paschal mystery.”11 But mysticism is something else.

The Youth

The natural vocation of young Europeans to the religious experience has been noticed. They live in uncertainty and insecurity: the experience gives them stability. They live without a past and do not see a future: this experience promises them a tradition, a history, eternity. They live, dissatisfied, in a state of confusion: this experience gives them a norm. They inhabit an earth disfigured by man: religious experience is beauty. There are many young people who silently experience this attraction. And it is a meeting and a clash: experience, adhesion, rejection, anger.12

The tendency to mysticism seems a characteristic feature of many young people, especially those who come from higher socio–cultural strata. This is demonstrated by the proliferation of mystic youth movements of an irrational and esoteric orientation. In the 1970s the Jesus Movement appeared in the Anglo–Saxon world. In this movement many young people committed to stay away from the temptations of sex and drugs and emotionally gathered around the figure of Jesus. Other young people were fascinated by the passive doctrines found in Eastern religions. The phenomenon remains a witness to the need for religious experience and “mysticism” that in the past exercised its influence on the Catholic youth.

Such a need, in debt to para–religious irrationalism, may have had its genesis in the reaction to the rationalization of urban–industrial society and, at least partially, to the apparent or real bureaucratization of historical religious organizations. In any case, genuine Christian mysticism is something else and grows, by divine grace, within the faith of the Church in a climate of ascetism and prayer, for it is experience of the transcendent.13

This means that authentic Christian mysticism participates in the simplicity of God; it is not mixed with the often sinful ambiguity of earthly existence. It is not born as a product of a culture in which the sacred and cosmic, the sacred and erotic, sacred, esoteric and demonic, fanaticism, magic and superstition, are mixed up. These are so often the characteristics by which a mysticism without God can be recognized.14

Benedict XVI, during a homily, exhorted Christians to remain near Jesus without fear, to let themselves be purified of the dross that compromises our spiritual relationship with the Lord and with others. He quoted one of Origen’s homilies where this ancient Church Father referenced an expression attributed to Jesus, probably authentic, even if it is not contained in Sacred Scripture: “Whoever is near me is near fire.”15 A text that lends itself well to describing Christian mysticism.

So too a poem by Dylan Thomas expresses allegorically the nostalgia that many of our contemporaries have:

Being but men, we walked into the trees

Afraid, letting our syllables be soft

For fear of waking the rooks,

For fear of coming

Noiselessly into a world of wings and cries.

If we were children we might climb,

Catch the rooks sleeping, and break no twig,

And, after the soft ascent,

Thrust out our heads above the branches

To wonder at the unfailing stars.

Out of confusion, as the way is,

And the wonder, that man knows,

Out of the chaos would come bliss.

That, then, is loveliness, we said,

Children in wonder watching the stars,

Is the aim and the end.

Being but men we walked into the trees, afraid.


1. Mucci, G., “La mistica come crocevia del postmoderno”, in Id., I cattolici nella temperie del relativismo, Milan: Jaca Book, 2005, p.371.

2. Ib., 373.

3. Cfr D. Antiseri, “La riscoperta della fede nel nuovo secolo”, in Il Tempo, April 15, 2001, 1.

4. P. Kampits, “Mauthner, Fritz”, in F. Volpi (ed.), Dizionario delle opere filosofiche, Milan: Mondadori, 2000, 734f; G. Vitiello, “La mistica senza Dio di Fritz Mauthner”, in Corriere della Sera, “La Lettura”, July 8, 2012, 16.

5. Sum. Theol., II–II, q.97, a. 2, ad 2um. Est cognitio divinae bonitatis vel voluntatis affectiva seu experimentalis, dum quis experitur in seipso gustum divinae dulcedinis et complacentiam divinae voluntatis.

6. Cfr M. Vannini, Il volto del Dio nascosto. L’esperienza mistica dall’Iliade a Simone Weil, Milan, Mondadori, 1999, 17.

7. A. Rigobello, “Perche si torna a parlare di Dio?”, in Oss. Rom., September 30, 1992, 3.

8. A. Ghisalberti, “La mistica cristiana continua ad affascinare”, in Vita e Pensiero 93 (2010) 122.

9. Cfr T. Goffi, “Ateo”, in S. De Fiores – T. Goffi, (eds), Nuovo Dizionario di Spiritualita, Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, Paoline, 1985, 108f.

10. G. Ravasi, “La preghiera, respiro dell’anima”, in Il Sole 24 Ore, December 30, 2012, 28; S. Acquaviva, “Cercando un altro Dio nel crepuscolo degli dei”, in Corriere della Sera, July 22, 1992, 9.

11. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, n.22e.

12. Cfr M. Ventura, “I giovani europei chiedono di credere”, in Corriere della Sera, “La lettura”, September 9, 2012, 7.

13. C fr P.G. Grasso, “Giovani”, in S. De Fiores–T. Goffi (eds), Nuovo Dizionario di Spiritualita, cit., 740f.

14. Cfr G.F. Zuanazzi, “Patologia spirituale”, ib., 1164–1166.

15. Cfr Oss. Rom., May 24–25, 2010, 8.

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