Immanuel Kant prefers contemplation over the pursuit of sensual pleasure since it reputedly allows access to the supersensible and the transcendent design of nature. For a pagan, by contrast, reality is implicitly a pantheistic unity rather than either a Cartesian duality of matter (res extensa) and consciousness (res cogitans) or what Stephan Palmquist allows as a Kantian hierarchy between the noumenal and phenomenal. In my Pagan Ethics, I argued that if we were to comprehend Kant’s realm of moral obligation not as the manifestation of reason but rather more simply as honour-in-this-world, we have instead at heart a pagan understanding. Pagans tend to identify the ethical with the aesthetic (beauty is the good, and the good is beautiful), and they do not, as does Kant, divorce beauty from sublimity. Consequently, to whatever degree paganism might allegedly associate mysticism with superstition and/or fanatical practice, it nevertheless still understands genuine mystic experience as one of sublime ecstasy.

In this last, the pagan mystic goal as an enterprise of emotional feeling may coincide with the mystical as it is experienced in the world’s other non-pagan religions as well. The significant difference could lie instead in the means of pursuit. Within the range of possible human experience, mysticism comprehends something supremely fascinating. The present work is dedicated to forming an understanding of what this fascination is and how it might be achieved. To this end, it has behooved me to look into the world’s major religions to fathom how the mystical is conceived and sought by each of them and how this resonates with a pagan practice, theology and morality. In short, what are the similarities paganism shares with other religions concerning mysticism, and what does it offer that is different or even unique?

The present work represents a completion to my earlier explorations of Pagan Theology (2003) and Pagan Ethics (2016). As with the previous works, there emerges an unintended interfaith dimension in that I find bona fide pagan elements in other religions as well. These contribute to areas of possible interdenominational dialogue but are also important in themselves for our continuing divisive and fissuring world of the 21st century. But in the current milieu of destructive conflict, terrorism, social division, environmental threat, disillusionment and raison d’être uncertainty, paganism appears to be re-emerging as an engaging spirituality that suggests the possibility of an innovative range of answers to the many problems humanity, life and nature are facing. This is not to say that paganism, especially institutionally, does not have its own difficulties – both internal and external, but it does propose more broadly a course or mode of living that has a noticeable appeal to an increasing number of people. Primarily, paganism advances a grounded form of mysticism rather than one of world-denial.

Consequently, it is clear that there are many different kinds of mystical experience not only for the pagan but also for humanity across the board. For the hard-nosed secularists among us, mystical pursuit is often dismissed as escapist fantasy. But even if the whole mystical enterprise could be written off as imagination, perhaps an enhanced imagination through various ingested substances and/or mental/hypnotic techniques, it nevertheless remains, along with the magic of technology, central to the human experience and its aesthetic potential. From this perspective alone, rather than rejecting mysticism, it is to be seen finally as the celebration of humanity’s imagination. Celebration and imagination are distinctly core to a pagan’s interpretation of spirituality, and fully to understand pagan mysticism often requires breaking free of many of the traditional and established dictums concerning the so-called ‘legitimate’ forms of mysticism. Among the conventional ideas, however, that are probably correct is that magic is preliminary to mysticism. Doubtlessly, the interface between magic and mysticism is both close and precarious. Magic might be what one could use or do to change unpleasantness. Mysticism, by contrast, simply allows one to deal with an existing situation as it is. The danger with the magical as an end in itself is not only hubris but also, as Patañjali and others have warned, its potential for deterring the achievement of mystical insight. The cultivation of magical powers are perhaps for the warriors among us, while the mystical for the vernacular pagan is simply the glorious connection with ecstatic life itself. This last is jouissance, the mystic experience of joyous pleasure. Its pursuit is what distinguishes finally a pagan ultimately from secular reason, Abrahamic salvation and dharmic release. It allows both the sexual and the rapturous to be included in the holy. Along with serenity and bliss, a pagan mystical experience ranges into unhesitating engagement with the world, the physical and the natural.

For the West, mysticism nominally begins with the catalytic phasmata or sacred objects of the paradosis in the classical Greco-Roman mystery religions. This visionary origin is seminally inspired through the kinds of paraphernalia recognised by material religion study as significant and not to be omitted or diminished in importance. In fact, without a material religion dimension to spirituality, there appears to be a schismatic propensity within religion in general and with transcendental religion in particular. A material religion focus bypasses historic avoidance of the ‘many ways/many truths’ of spirituality’s pluralistic potential. There is a trust and acceptance of the sensate instead of the endeavour to eliminate validity of the senses. Moreover, in corporeal religiosity, there appears to be more of a consideration of value rather than of truth per se.

For a pagan as a material religionist, embodiment and sensual encounter encourage a via positiva to the mystical. But there is no singular pagan way. While wonder and amazement might prevail for a materialistic awareness of the divine, and the interrelationship between the imaginal and the corporeal can be conceived as linked through the quasi-tangible, an anti-civilisation preference is to be witnessed in the Daoist’s social detachment and/or hermetic withdrawal for securing harmony with the way or mundane. More extroverted forms of mysticism are to be understood in Confucianism as well as the Greek mysteries, Heraclitus and the pre-Socratic philosophers beyond the soma sema contention of the Orphic rationale and gnostic denials of matter’s reality or worth. At best, perhaps, Heraclitus’ materialism exhibits a similarity to quantum mechanics’ comprehension of matter as a construct of energy units and waves.

Overall, for a pagan, there is a concentration on the here-and-now to make the best of our physicality and not damn it for something beyond the life at hand as we know it. Once we leave our bodies, there may be something else or something more, but that possibility in no way diminishes for a pagan the importance, value and appreciation of our lives in the present of this-world. This is what corpo-spirituality in its fullest sense is about.

The mystical is both the here and now and the all of all that is. But we are the first species on earth who are capable of destroying ourselves. Today, humanity appears to be incapable of a prodigal return. This last is dependent on a dismissal of past acts and wrongs – with a daring will to re-connect on the liberating wings of mutual trust and courage. Under the current hegemony of being suppressed by virtual corporation empires – identified and recognized now even as ‘persons’ with all the rights personhood demands, perhaps the insight that is the consequence of mystical endeavor is the single most appropriate means left to us for achieving both an individual and global salvation.

The unio mystica is not a necessarily enduring condition of ecstasy (until perhaps at best in old age in which one might become capable of slipping into a continuum of serenely ecstatic states). But what the mystical consciousness could predominantly be is a re-capturing of the wide-eyed innocence of childhood wonder. The traditional argument is that the negative path is the sole means by which to reach the mystical. But is this really but one way and are there others as well? Paganism, like most religions, becomes all-inclusive. The stilling of the senses to prevent diversion from mystical focus is to be accepted as also occasionally a pagan approach. But in addition and more typical, I have argued, is the expansion and triggering of the senses into the mystical experience and for a pagan perhaps even as a semi-embodied occurrence.

In line with Jess Hollenback’s quasi-substantial possibilities that may result from mystical ecstasy, but from a more New Age expression within the vast range of contemporary paganism, author Caroline Myss refers to “the mystical dimension of spirituality [as] tactile. Divine substance for me.” She orients mysticism to “the nature of intuition, organic divinity and pagan instincts” and also to the vernacular this-worldly by considering that

[t]here are more and more people who are essentially ‘mystics without monasteries’; people who are drawn to … ‘mystical activism’, the contemporary form of mysticism that is suited to our spiritual culture and a population for whom living in a monastery full time is simply not an option in this lifetime.

Despite her transcendental bias and stress on the need for a guide, Myss is here affirming the wider pagan endorsement of mystical pursuit that does not remove one from the world but instead more unabashedly integrates with it. The pagan unio mystica conforms with what Canadian author Michael Ignatieff considers to be “liberalism’s central ideas [of] the freedom of the individual, the sovereignty of conscience, and the need to create a space for secular politics,” but nevertheless a more public and expansive understanding of mysticism in the sense that paganism offers may also speak to the pervasive and underlying “yearning for deeper collective belonging and stronger ties to tradition and community.” Typical of this contemporary pagan expression that is “devoted to personal introspection and free thought, as well as to personal religious and mystical experience” is the declaration of the Eleusinion Organization (Yahoo) that understands itself as

an outgrowth of a greater, older movement - for there have always been people throughout the centuries who looked with fondness and longing on the nearly-lost religions of the Pagan past, as examples of true power, depth, ancestral austerity, and as examples of more tolerant and sophisticated expressions of divine reality.

Moreover, like Omar Khayyam who could find no acceptable answers to his perplexities, the contemporary pagan is also apt “to put his faith instead in a joyful appreciation of the fleeting and sensuous beauties of the material world.”

While it may not be the sole chance we have, the supranormal ecstasy of mysticism may be more important than it ever has been in the past for what might be recognized as the necessity to shift to the human dream that supersedes the me-ism, the nation-state reification, the vanishing bio-diversity and humanitarian ugliness for the pervasive ethos of beauty, the ineffable aesthos. The purely secular goals of liberal society, namely, “the slow reduction of unmerited suffering, the gradual diminution of injustice, and the increase of prosperity and individual flourishing,” leave a void concerning the palpable spiritual mystery of the world. In contrast to the non-liberal doctrines that continually arise to distract deeper personal and collective hungers, mysticism offers both bona fide purpose and genuine fulfilment. The British philosopher Galen Strawson refers to ‘the standard OOO God’, that is, one who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent, but since this understanding has become less acceptable to many in the world of today, a pagan mysticism that welcomes the awe of beauty in and of itself may provide a pragmatic yet satisfying vitality. But if we want a beautiful world, this requires thinking about its collective foundations – however ephemeral these may individually be. Mystical ecstasy could itself be a temporary experience but at least one that might be inspirationally remembered. But also, when one does have an experience of ecstasy, there is then a reconnection to one’s previous all-connecting experiences as well. This may be a fragile underpinning, but for our planet’s future and that of our children it is arguably the most beautiful recourse we have.