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Mystic by ijclark CC BY-NC 2.0  

What is Mystic-politics?

The word mystic-politics (misticopolitca) is meant to indicate a field of experience that can no longer be contained in rigid compartments. It indexes on one hand mysticism and its internalizations, while on the other politics and its activism.


Moving through language is important for us humans, it also means knowing how to move through life. We inherit a language that somehow accompanies our existence and with it we orient ourselves. But sometimes it is not enough, the available words are not enough, the given vocabulary is incomplete and the inherited words fail to tell the experience we are having of life, to the point that we feel a tension between language and lived experience.

A 20th century philosopher said that the limits of my language mean the limits of my world. That is why at a certain point I find myself having to force the limits of the language at my disposal to try to say something beyond the limits of the world I am living in. Then new words are born, they spring forth like ripe fruit. This is what poets do, but it is not only poets who exercise this creative function: it belongs to everyone, to all those who feel, to the full, the need for it. And it is the times we are living in that are crying out for this disposition to language in word and deed. A shrewd intellectual like Michel de Certeau wrote that spirituality responds to the questions of a certain time and at the same time does not respond outside the terms of the question itself.

The word mystic-politics (misticopolitca) was coined by Italian theologian Antonietta Potente. It is precisely to mystic-politics that a recent essay of mine is dedicated. The word is meant here to indicate a field of experience that can no longer be contained in rigid compartments. It indexes on the one hand mysticism and its internalizations, while on the other politics and its activism. Now, these containers do not contain. That is, there is a surplus of meaning and lived life that transcends them to flow and feed the endless streams of life.

I name it mystic-politics, then, rather than mysticism and politics, upon which much has already been written. I am thinking, for example, of Michel de Certeau’s work in which he investigates the complex relationship between the two planes in the period between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While we may be able to consider the complex relationship between mysticism and politics, we must also bear in mind how mystic-political entanglements can be traced and decoded in the signs of the past, discernible as early as the Pauline letters (see in particular the reading by Jacob Taubes) or in prophetic and visionary figures present in the various historical epochs, such as Marguerite Porete, William Blake or Simone Weil, to give just a few examples.


Following, we should not limit ourselves to observing the points of contact between these two fields of experience; rather, it is useful to strive to reach the common source. Where, it should be emphasised without taking anything for granted, mysticism is not fuga mundi, with the implicit and baleful dualism between spirit and matter.

Additionally, the escape of the monks of the 3rd and 4th centuries to the deserts of Palestine and Syria already possessed an intrinsic political significance during their time: the rejection of the link with the newly established imperial power, from which that moment on would run through the entire history of Christianity. Like then as today, even if we wanted to, there is no fuga mundi possible: escape where, when the entire planet is being controlled and put to profit, and the deserts of the Middle East are places of endless war within geopolitical scenarios in constant transformation?

The religious dimension, even in its mystical component, is in fact never separated from politics. Everything happens within the polis. Because both religious and political experience, when they are authentic, call into question the very foundations of existence, they tap into the essence of reality.

In this regard, Raimon Panikkar noted that if it is true that an uncritical mixing of religion and politics leads to forms of totalitarianism, more or less theocratic, their separation leads to an ultra-worldly religiosity on the one hand and politics as a mere exercise of power on the other. The solution, he added, lies in placing oneself in a non-dualistic perspective (advaita, according to the Hindu lexicon). Mystic-politics follows this recognition. Having at the same time made it clear that both politics and religion cannot be relegated to their respective institutions nor as activities exclusively for insiders: political experience is not a speciality for politicians or political scientists, just as religious experience is not the exclusive monopoly of the Churches. 

This need for renewal should not be confined to these two spheres, the religious and the political, because in the face of the current epochal crisis that involves and overwhelms the most diverse levels of our lives (ecological, demographic, political, psychological, health, economic, financial, energy, spiritual) there is a radical need for change that cuts across every aspect of existence. The mystic-political perspective seeks to place itself precisely on the plane of these urgencies.


The common source of mystic-political experience is first and foremost one’s own body as a place of knowledge and relationship with the world, a living experience that interfaces interiority and exteriority. There is an inner experience that opens up a vast world, infinite and indefinite, therefore not immediately translatable into known formulas and codes.

It is, after all, the central experience underlying religions themselves. As William James writes in his pioneering work on the phenomenology of religious experience, that churches, once established, live second-hand on codified tradition, whereas their founders drewn it from personal experience. James had also identified certain criteria for defining mystical experience: ineffability (mystical experience must be experienced first-hand), intuition (it is the result of a non-ordinary form of knowledge), instability (this condition, with rare exceptions, is not permanent) and passivity (there may be activity in the induction phase, but once the transition has taken place the subject is passive).

And it is precisely because of this direct access that mystics have often found themselves confined to the limits of heresy, as their experience and the account they drew from it did not always coincide with the normative truths. On this, authors such as Gershom Scholem have conducted significant works investigating the relationship between religious authority and mysticism: the mystic, being in a direct and productive relationship with the object of his experiencing, often breaks with authority and reverence to tradition. Not only that, in front of the dissolution of traditional bonds that characterize our time, there can also be mystical experience outside the usual religious contexts. Again de Certeau stated that this rupture is constant in the history of spirituality.

Thus, the starting point can be precisely that relationship between us and the world before us. For a long time, theologians like Thomas Berry repeated how in our society we were losing our relationship with every manifestation of the divine and, despite this evidence, instead of seeking out the signs in the world around us and trying to feel and read them, we preferred to continue reading the Book. We can no longer, he insisted, anchor ourselves in religious texts. Indeed he expressly invited us to set aside the Scriptures in order to rediscover the sources of spirituality precisely within a renewed relationship with nature. True, the psalms tell us that the mountains and the birds praise God, but to know this we must turn to the Scriptures. Why, Thomas Berry concluded, do we not instead try to derive our deepest feelings from direct experience with trees, mountains, rivers, seas and winds? Why do we not respond religiously to these realities? (Where ‘religiously’ means the ability to re-ligāre, to reactivate a founding bond with the reality that surrounds and envelops us). Here this could be one possible start, among many, of a mystic-political path.

It is necessary to clarify that when we speak of mysticism we do not intend to measure ourselves against “great mysticism” with its authoritative figures, often with legendary traits, that all religious traditions celebrate, before whom we remain helpless spectators. Rather, for what we are talking about, “small mysticism” is sufficient, within everyone’s reach, concerning experiences that can happen outside of confessional spheres, and therefore that are aligned with agnostic or indifferent subjects in religious matters or those subjectivities which span a heterogeneity of beliefs.

Let us think, by way of example, of very different experiences, but all in all common, that can also occur involuntarily, such as when one is faced with the spectacular nature of the natural elements, the power of dreamlike images, the extreme limit of physical exhaustion (these experiences do not always occur in Apollonian contexts) or, vice versa, states of festive exuberance, the alteration produced by listening to music, dance or substances, but also abandon in relationships bound by love.

In the words of a great visionary like William Blake: ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’


But what do we then do with such experiences? Doesn’t this praise of the ‘little mystic’ risk concealing an ambiguous side, if not an obscure one of the argument? Do these experiences not end up confining us to a short-lived festive oasis within a daily life with unfulfilling traits, punctuated by widespread insecurity, fear, injustice and unhappiness? Aren’t these states of effervescence the mirror image of the anaesthesia of the social body produced today by the massive use of antidepressants, sedatives, hypnotics or whatever to discipline feelings and relationships, with which to accept the unacceptable? Or, at best, is it reduced to a mere aesthetic experience, fulfilling as much as one wants, but recluse in the personal sphere, thus leaving the modification of the social order untouched?

If this mystical-political perspective also wants to claim a political value, it must find a channel of expression so that it becomes communicative action, a political practice. The mystical experience, which is a breaking out of the usual boundaries between a knowing subject and a known object, once it has happened, instead of being a place of refuge to be jealously guarded, can on the contrary constitute a richness to be shared, the search for a new vision, the opening up to a different quality of feeling, the patient realisation of a different network of relations between oneself, one’s own and other species, the ecosystem and the planet in which we live, to the point of feeling oneself a living and active part of a great living organism, a field in which the mythical and the scientific, the political and the religious contaminate each other. In other words, it can become the passage in which the coming out of oneself opens one up to life in its fullness and directs one towards an incorporated ethics and politics, a practice of being constructed.

The mystic-political hypothesis may therefore constitute a possible response to neoliberalism, which has become a religion of our time. This statement is not a hyperbolic expression; it is no coincidence, in fact, that Harvey Cox, a theologian who became famous for his theology of secularisation, intervened on the subject, calling neoliberalism a pseudo-religion, as Walter Benjamin had already done in the 1920s. According to the North American theologian, neo-liberalism is the counterfeit religion of this time, with its belief system posited as irrefutable, starting with ontological individualism elevated to unquestionable dogma. Today’s society falls prey to a deification of the market that claims to satisfy the same questions that religions once answered. The market thus presents itself as a dogma, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent; nothing can escape its power of commodification, and it does not lack doctrines, prophets and missionary zeal to convert the world to its own imagery and consequent lifestyle.

In denouncing the workings of this pseudo-religion and its effects, the mystical-political hypothesis, understood as a concept in constant evolution and briefly set out in these pages, can constitute a theme for collective confrontation, in theory as in practice.

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