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The Mystical Experience

Once the divinity of humanity has been established, the question is how to communicate with that divinity. The answer is found in mystical experience, which is not limited to religious clerics who shut themselves off from the world. This issue is addressed by Max Weber (1930), who developed a typology of religion containing four ideal types: inner-worldly asceticism, outer-worldly asceticism, inner-worldly mysticism and outer-worldly mysticism. On one hand, religions either accept or reject the world. On the other hand, religions tend toward asceticism, where the believer is a tool of the divine will, or mysticism, in which the believer is the vessel of the Holy Spirit. Asceticism is rational and dismisses miracle and magic; and mysticism is irrational and experiential. Weber concentrates on inner-worldly asceticism, which he sees as the religious sentiment most predisposed to capitalism. In this type, fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs is seen as the highest moral good. Although Weber does not elaborate on inner-worldly mysticism, this type seems to be the basis of Unity. As a whole, Unity does not reject the world, and is therefore inner-worldly. Unity is mystical in the sense that personal experience with God is of paramount importance. As explained by Unity Minister Eric Butterworth (1965), "While the Christian ideal has been centered around the concept of the worship of God, which usually means bowing before an altar, a statue, a church official, Unity is concerned more with finding a consciousness of oneness with God, and then seeking to express God in thought, word and act" (p. 33). Unity's aim is to present practical ways to live true Christianity before, during and after oneness with God has been attained.

Weber's ideal type of inner-worldly mysticism was invoked in a study of the individual experience of the sacred by Donald Stone, Robert Bellah, Robert Wuthnow and Charles Glock. In an individually-published article on this research, Stone (1978) investigated participation in religious groups which emphasize the individual experience of the sacred. The new religious consciousness of these groups, Stone argues, emphasizes religious experiences which "take place in the context of pluralism, pragmatism, openness to science and rejection of dualistic theology" (p. 123). Unity also exhibits many of the qualities attributed to groups that Stone associates with this new religious consciousness. Stone analyzes these groups according to Weber's understanding of religion in modern society.

The significance of current religious groups may be less as social movements than as part of a cultural drift toward an "innerworldly mysticism" that is compatible with (non-reductionist) scientific orientations. . . . An innerworldly mysticism might have cultural survival value as compatible with contemporary science and complementary to bureaucratic post-industrial society, (p. 131)

In a critique of Weber, Robertson (1975) argues that Weber glossed over mysticism because he did not understand mysticism's various types and phenomenological bases. Weber viewed mysticism as unstable and non-viable in rationalized society. But as William James (1902) argued9, New Thought and Unity provide proof that religion can be approached from a scientific and rational perspective. Robertson contends that "rationalism and mysticism combined 'mainly because man is incurably religious and if the rationalist undercuts the traditional faith he has nothing left to live by unless he can establish a direct contact with the eternal' (Robertson, 1975, p. 256 quoting Bainton, 1963, p. 126)."

This direct contact with the divine was a common perception among Unity respondents. Almost 92 percent implied that they have found this connection when they agreed to the statement "I feel connected to God." Furthermore, 97 percent of Unity respondents agreed that "Union with God is possible through spiritual growth," showing that almost all respondents believe this mystical connection is possible, even if they haven't attained it themselves.

The pervasiveness of mysticism in American religion is summarized in Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler and Steven Tipton (1985): "Mysticism is probably the commonest form of religion among those we interviewed, and many who sit in the pews of the churches and sects are really religious individualists, though many more never go to church at all" (p. 246). Bellah et al. report that mysticism appeals mostly to the upper class and well-educated, a demographic which holds true for the Unity respondents.

Bellah et al. also investigate mysticism's relationship with the church and sect, which are the three types of religious organization first specified by Ernst Troeltch (1912/1969). The church works within the world to offer meaning and to bring about cultural change. The sect separates itself from the secular world because society is sinful. In mysticism, Bellah et al. argue, the "focus is on the spiritual discipline of the individual, however he or she relates to the world. Religious organization is important to both church and sect, but to mystics or religious individualists organization, being inessential, may be casual and transient" (p. 243). In other words, since mystics experience a connection to a god within themselves, they are less likely to need a church. One Unity member, Paul, agrees that the need for churches is less when God is found within. "My take on the philosophy of Unity is that God is where we are, that we carry our own church within ourselves. And if we want to celebrate that, then Unity is a fine place to do that." But in response to the question "People have God within them, so churches aren't really necessary," only 19 percent of all Unity respondents agreed or strongly agreed, while 65 percent disagreed. Since 93 percent agreed to the statement "God is individualized in every person," it appears that the disagreement lies with the second half of the statement: that churches aren't really necessary. This does not negate Bellah et al.'s argument as much as it implies that Unity appeals to those mystics who desire a community with which to celebrate and find plausibility for their beliefs.

In A Generation of Seekers, Roof (1993) also used Troeltch's vision of mystical religion as a basis for studying what he called "highly active seekers." According to Roof, mysticism has the following characteristics:

One is that union with God is possible through spiritual growth. This implies progression of the soul's relationship with the divine, or spiritual evolution, which is taken to be the proper goal of all such striving. A second characteristic is that religious experience is seen as an expression of a universal religious consciousness. Such experience leads to an acceptance of religious relativity and to the doctrine of polymorphism, or the belief in the truth of all religions. Finally, religious and metaphysical ideas blend together in mysticism to form a monistic, or unified, worldview. Monistic orientations emphasize that there is one and only one absolute essence, which is the true nature of all apparently separate beings and things. (p. 83)

There is no question that Unity as a movement and the individuals who participate exhibit all three of these characteristics. While other mainline churches may allow mysticism, and may even encourage people to pursue it on their own time, Unity shows people how to put it in their lives. Unity's main emphasis is to show how mystical principles are practical and do-able. It's not just something that is allowed. Unity teaches mysticism and is based on it. Furthermore, Unity brings mysticism into the communal worship services through affirmations and meditations which are done in the first person. The following is a typical example from a Silent Unity prayer sheet used during the Wednesday prayer services at many Unity churches:

My heart is Your sanctuary, and through Your love, it becomes a haven of peace. I am warmed by Your love as I surrender my concerns into Your tender care. . . . In the stillness of Your holy presence, I grow more aware of Your healing love within me. My heart pulses in perfect rhythm with the energy of Your love. (Unity School of Christianity, February 1997)

This type of prayer promotes the mystical experience by helping those who pray to feel God within them. Unity teaches many kinds of prayer, but this meditative and affirmative type of prayer is widely used. Although some mainline churches may be beginning to place more emphasis on the mystical experience, it has been a central tenet of Unity from the beginning.

  1. See Chapter II.

© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.