Beyond Sociology: Mysticism and Society
This chapter undertakes a synoptic integration of theorizing the society–mysticism relation. There is a dearth of sociological theory in the field, but also the pre-eminent contribution of Max Weber, which is taken as a starting point. For Jewish mysticism, the relevance of Weber and Ernst Troeltsch in the work of the founding academic scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, is reviewed. In the study of Jewish mysticism, Scholem, the founder, returns to the field to explicitly address what he calls a “scanting” of analyses of “Mysticism and Society.”
Contemporary work implicitly follows Weber’s model of self-deification as central in the process of sanctification, and displays a renewed enthusiasm for a sociology of mysticism, under the rubric of “spirituality.” This “new mysticism” is reviewed, indicating continuities and discontinuities with the earlier work, and turns instead to William James and Stephen Toulmin for a “return to cosmology.”
The cosmic emphasis, like the move from Weber and Troeltsch to a consideration of Scholem, is then examined in the context of Jewish mystical scholarship. Here the work of Garb, Wolfson and Mopsik offers an opening to rethinking the society/mysticism relation by showing how Kabbalah, and also recent scholarship on Hindu Tantra, enables a social theory of mysticism—one which expands the Weberian self-deification hypothesis and its historical shifts, to expressly include the cosmic dimension, politics and sexuality as a way to understand mysticism socially.
This social appropriation of the new mysticism in social science, but especially in religious scholarship, leads finally to a reconceptualization of wider social dynamics, beyond the earlier value internalization, Functionalist models of social integration.
Instead, Kabbalah and Tantra describe what is here called the “interactive dynamics of emanations and divine corporealizations,” which becomes an embodied, more broadly enacted, everyday social process. In this way, mysticism is now a constitutive principle of society, and mystical theory displaces sociology as a generative source of social explanation.
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