The 1986 Assisi interfaith meeting of the pope, the Dalai Lama, Rome’s chief rabbi, the archbishop of Canterbury and others heralds a less elitist and isolated, more dialogical and democratic style of mysticism appropriate to a global world, contends William Johnston in his latest book. This mysticism, understood as wisdom beyond letter and image moving us into timeless reality, will still possess its universal, age-old features, even in the midst of its evolution and cultural/religious distinctiveness. And Johnston, who directs the Institute of Oriental Religions at Sophia University, Tokyo, does not suggest that globalism by itself creates mysticism. The latter still remains, in what can seem so unpleasantly paradoxical to the nonmystic, gracious gift and yet the fruit of enormously disciplined effort. It just seems that our global era presents us with major challenges calling for new mystics, who are here and there responding. These mystics may not be elitist, if Johnston is right, but they are nonetheless somewhat rare. (Johnston distinguishes between flashes of mysticism experienced very widely and the state of mysticism, reached only by some.) But thank God they are emerging, for Johnston contends that they will be the religious figures most needed by a declining West moving into a global world.
The book’s early chapters are somewhat dark and challenging, because they plunge us into the crucible of a West suffering from the devastating undersides of its scientific and cultural revolutions. Religion’s tyranny of dogma is but a form of a wider Western cerebralism and scientism that is detached from life and experience. There is emerging a new consciousness adequate to the spiritual hunger unleashed. The author is suggesting that authentic mystical consciousness emerges from such purifying fires. He resists pessimism, somewhat challenging Karl Rahner’s prediction that the church of the future will be a little flock in a diaspora situation. The decline of the West will find its corrective particularly through the awakening of the mystical East. Johnston offers a chapter on Asian meditative styles to give some preliminary sense of this, challenges stereotypes of the Far East encountered even in some papal and curial writing and yet, heeding St. Ignatius Loyola’s counsel that the enemy attacks us where we are weakest, cautions us to enter the dialogue with Asia with a secure grounding in our own spiritual traditions.
In the second part of the book Johnston alternates between Western and Asian mystical sources, illustrating something of the new ecumenical mysticism, as he explores central themes like prayer (this is where all really begins, he teaches), the mystical path and significant forerunners like Bede Griffiths. The four chapters in this section devoted to Jesus form a bulge in the book, indicating the centrality of the Incarnation as the distinctively Christian gift in the global world, as well as how the Asian gift of mystical meditation can aid Christians in discovering insufficiently noted and perhaps even new depths of Christ along with a more mystical approach to Scripture and theology. While Western Jesus questers typically give the Synoptic Gospels a privileged place, Johnston thinks Asia will bring a new attentiveness to the mystical Gospel of John, and he notes the fondness of interreligious pathbreakers like Bede Griffiths and Abhishiktananda for this Gospel. A brief third part and epilogue speak of a Catholicism in its Second Spring, purified of ecclesial ambition and excessive centralization under the impact of the Asian renewal.
This book is a form of the Japanese ishin denshin, which Johnston translates as communion of mind with mind. It is a bridge-phenomenon pointing ahead to the East-West fusion of horizons, which Johnston has lived deeply throughout a very rich academic and pastoral career in the Far East. His thought has weight, for like all authentic mysticism, it is rooted in experience and not in abstraction. This is why we need to pay attention to him when he tells us that he has experientially discovered the truth both of universality and particularity, commonness and difference. Particularly striking is the witness of this thinker to the particularity of Christ, a particularity that many Western scholars are in danger of ignoring, and which fascinatingly the church in Asia, with its mystical attunement to living experience and not scholarly abstractions, will help us recover.
Occasionally I wanted more elucidation of the West’s alleged decline as well as the East’s mystical superiority. Johnston seeks to show how the Asian church might renew the West, but this will be even more convincing through a greater baring of the East’s shadow side, I suspect. Johnston also advances a more Christian-friendly view of monism, which seems more the result of the creative yet not unfounded rethinking of traditions resulting from the new mysticism than an orthodox, traditional Hindu view.
Readers with a special interest in mysticism will find a retrieval of the distinction between acquired and infused contemplation, and a rejection of the separation of mysticism and prophecy advocated by some scholars, at least in the Christian sources. This still would seem to leave open the question of whether the non-Christian Asian traditions exemplify a mysticism that is not primarily prophetic but more wisdom-oriented, whereas Western Jewish and Christian mysticism is primarily of the prophetic variety. Of course, these distinctions of emphasis begin to fuse in the Asian Christian church, which deliberately seeks such fusion.
Many challenges await the reader of this stimulating book. Among my favorites was the counsel that for every hour of talk we ought to have two hours of silence.