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Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Course No.  6130
Course No.  6130
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Mystical experiences and practices-including dramatic visions, direct communication with the divine, intense spiritual quests, and hermetic lifestyles-are commonly associated with Eastern cultures. They are thought to be far removed from the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

But consider the following:

  • Many of the most important figures in the Jewish Bible had experiences that can be interpreted as mystical, including Moses's conversation with God as the burning bush and Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly throne-chariot.
  • Jesus Christ, as a figure believed to be the incarnation of God, can be seen as representing the ultimate goal of mystical thought, the unification of human with divine.
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Mystical experiences and practices-including dramatic visions, direct communication with the divine, intense spiritual quests, and hermetic lifestyles-are commonly associated with Eastern cultures. They are thought to be far removed from the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

But consider the following:

  • Many of the most important figures in the Jewish Bible had experiences that can be interpreted as mystical, including Moses's conversation with God as the burning bush and Ezekiel's vision of the heavenly throne-chariot.
  • Jesus Christ, as a figure believed to be the incarnation of God, can be seen as representing the ultimate goal of mystical thought, the unification of human with divine.
  • The Islamic prophet Muhammad is believed to have experienced the call of God directly through the angel Gabriel, and throughout his life he reported incidents of mystical encounters, including the divine revelation of the Qur'an, the sacred text of Islam.

In these examples, we encounter a surprising truth: that each of the great three Abrahamic religious traditions-those religions that trace their origins back to the patriarch Abraham-holds the seeds for deep mystical contemplation. But what do most of us know about these mystics and the tradition they sustained?

In Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, you explore this spiritual, literary, and intellectual heritage in these great faiths as it unfolds over three millennia. In 36 enlightening, thought-provoking lectures, award-winning Professor Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University offers nearly unprecedented access to these seldom studied traditions.

What Is Mysticism?

But what do we mean when we speak of Western mysticism? As Professor Johnson shows, there is no single or simple definition of mysticism. In some traditions, it is rooted in intellectual discipline. In others, it's based in devotion to prayer and fasting. In still others, it's defined by ecstatic experience-a glimpse of the divine given as a gift from above.

Just consider these diverse instances of mysticism:

  • The writings of Jewish Kabbalah mystic Rabbi Abulafia, whose work includes practical directions for the achievement of religious ecstasy
  • The practice of hesychasm, through which medieval Christians recited the "Jesus prayer" to invite divine revelation
  • The theological texts of Jalal ad-Din Rumi, a Muslim scholar who explored the mystical implications of love through breathtaking poetry

Mystical Tradition introduces you to the many faces of mysticism, from renowned scholars to simple people striving for personal enlightenment, throughout the centuries. You also contemplate questions about the nature of mysticism itself: How are we to understand mysticism-as literally true, as poetically true, or as a delusion? What is the future of mysticism? As it becomes detached and popularized apart from its religious faiths, can mystical observances retain their original character?

The course also offers a thought-provoking perspective on the nature of human spirituality. As Professor Johnson demonstrates, mystical strains of thought have permeated and influenced these three great religions for centuries, despite opposition from-and, in some cases, persecution by-the mainstream religious community. As you come to see, this persistence in the face of persecution reflects something about human nature: the need to pursue ultimate knowledge and union with a transcendent power.

A Unique Opportunity

For most students, this is a unique opportunity. Many of the sources Professor Johnson draws on are unavailable to general readers. Some of them have only recently been translated into English. Professor Johnson's course offers a first-time glimpse into this tradition.

A noted religious scholar and former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson offers an intriguing, enlightening look into these seldom studied traditions and illuminates the rich and complex relationship between mystical contemplation and the Western traditions of faith.

But perhaps most importantly, he invites you to join him as you ponder a new way to understand faith, religion, and the essence of humanity. Explore with Professor Johnson the intriguing and enriching insights that await you in Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    A Way into the Mystic Ways of the West
    What do we mean by religion, mysticism, and prayer? What is the relation of mystical experience and mystical writing? In this opening lecture, you consider these questions and preview the path you will take as you consider the traditions of mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. x
  • 2
    Family Resemblances and Differences
    You take a closer look at the traditions and observances of the three major Western religions and explore their complex interrelations and differences. x
  • 3
    The Biblical Roots of Western Mysticism
    The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the most powerful source both for the premises of Western mysticism and for its symbolism. Here, we consider the biblical images and themes that recur in mystical accounts, including the pilgrimage, the cloud, and the heavenly throne. x
  • 4
    Mysticism in Early Judaism
    During the Hellenistic period (c. 300 B.C.E–200 C.E.), Jews in Palestine and in the Diaspora found new ways to maintain fidelity to the covenant. This lecture explores three manifestations of mysticism from this period: apocalyptic literature, the writings of the Essenes, and the teachings of Hellenistic Jews. x
  • 5
    Merkabah Mysticism
    While classical Judaism may seem legalistic and intellectually oriented, this same period saw the growth of a powerful form of mysticism centered in the emotional experience of a spiritual "ascent" to the heavenly throne-chariot (Merkabah). x
  • 6
    The Hasidim of Medieval Germany
    For Jews in Crusade-era Germany (1150–1250), dedication to the keeping of Torah was particularly perilous. During these dangerous times, a form of mysticism called Hasidism arose that appealed even to everyday people and found adherents beyond the small circle of accomplished scholars. x
  • 7
    The Beginnings of Kabbalah
    Although it was the most dominant form of Jewish mysticism for some seven centuries, Kabbalah's origins are shrouded in mystery. This lecture traces some of the early efforts in this tradition. x
  • 8
    Mature Kabbalah—Zohar
    For countless Jewish practitioners of Kabbalah, the Zohar(Book of Splendor) ranks in status next to Torah and Talmud. Although presented as an ancient tradition, Kabbalah is actually the astonishing literary creation of the 13th-century Spanish Jewish mystic, Moses de Leon. x
  • 9
    Isaac Luria and Safed Spirituality
    With the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jewish mysticism took on themes of exile, loss, and messianism. This lecture examines a new strain of Kabbalistic teaching that arose during this period. x
  • 10
    Sabbatai Zevi and Messianic Mysticism
    The elements of mysticism and messianism in the Lurianic teaching found explosive expression in Sabbatai Zevi, a self-proclaimed messiah and apostate whose teachings led to the founding of a new sectarian movement, Sabbatianism. x
  • 11
    The Ba'al Shem Tov and the New Hasidism
    In the 18th century, a new form of popular Jewish mysticism arose in Eastern Europe, beginning with the charismatic career of Israel Ba'al Shem Tov. This lecture considers the life of the movement's founder as well as the character of its literature and piety. x
  • 12
    Mysticism in Contemporary Judaism
    Examining the distinct movements within modern Judaism (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative) and the rise as Zionism (the quest for a Jewish homeland in Israel), Professor Johnson asks a key question: What elements of mysticism persist in such an altered tradition? x
  • 13
    Mystical Elements in the New Testament
    Like the Old Testament, the writings of earliest Christianity can be read in terms of mystical experiences and symbols. You examine these mystical strains, as seen in discussions of Jesus's divine nature, and the apostle Paul's report of ascent to the third heaven. x
  • 14
    Gnostic Christianity
    The mid-2nd century witnessed a pitched battle between those seeking a standardized canon of Christian belief and a mystical strain of the faith—Gnosticism—that sought salvation through the pursuit of a special kind of divine knowledge. x
  • 15
    The Spirituality of the Desert
    With Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, some believers sought to create their own form of "white martyrdom" through a life of physical asceticism and prayer. Through works such as Athanasius's Life of Antony, you examine the lives and teachings of these self-imposed ascetics. x
  • 16
    Shaping Christian Mysticism in the East
    This lecture considers three authors of the 4th century who are foundational to the development of the distinctive spirituality of Orthodoxy: Evagrius Ponticus, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Syrian monk called Pseudo-Macarius. x
  • 17
    Eastern Monks and the Hesychastic Tradition
    You continue consideration of mysticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church with an examination of how Greek influences fed into the development of the Hesychastic tradition, a form of mysticism that focuses on contemplative prayer. x
  • 18
    The Mysticism of Western Monasticism
    As Eastern monks sought spirituality in the desert, the faithful of Western Catholicism turned to monasticism for a way to live God's will through contemplation. The works of Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Richard of St. Victor offer a window into this tradition. x
  • 19
    Medieval Female Mystics
    The contemplative life flourished among women as well as men in the medieval period. This lecture explores the teaching and writings of these female mystics produced in monastic houses, in lay houses of the Beguines, and through the role of anchorite. x
  • 20
    Mendicants as Mystics
    Unlike monks in the monasteries, members of the mendicant orders pursued the spiritual life while preaching and working among the people. In this lecture, you consider outstanding examples of mendicant mystics, including Francis and Clare of Assisi and Bonaventure. x
  • 21
    English Mystics of the 14th Century
    Fourteenth-century England witnessed a remarkable surge in mystical activity and insight. This lecture looks at some of the finest examples, from the anonymous masterpiece, The Cloud of Unknowing, to the distinctive works of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Julian of Norwich. x
  • 22
    15th- and 16th-Century Spanish Mystics
    In Spain, the Counter-Reformation produced a climate of intense spiritual renewal in the face of Protestant dissent. Following the inspired path of Ignatius of Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises provided a template for contemplation, Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Francisco de Osuna provide examples of a new strain of Catholic mysticism. x
  • 23
    Mysticism among Protestant Reformers
    While Martin Luther and John Calvin are best known for their attacks on what they regarded as the abuses found in medieval monasteries, they also taught a form of Christian piety in which the ascetical tradition continued to find a central place. x
  • 24
    Mystical Expressions in Protestantism
    The mystical impulse also showed itself within various branches of Protestantism, as exemplified in the work of the most influential Protestant mystic, Jacob Boehme. You also explore the Pietism of P. J. Spener and the Anglican mysticism of Jeremy Taylor and William Law. x
  • 25
    20th-Century Mystics
    Mysticism continues to flourish within the Christianity of the 20th and 21st centuries—in monasteries, in groups devoted to the prayerful reading of scripture, and in the communal ecstasies of Pentecostal worship. This lecture discusses three noteworthy modern-day mystics: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil, and Thomas Merton. x
  • 26
    Muhammad the Prophet as Mystic
    Professor Johnson opens a unit on Islam with a consideration of the life of the religion's founder, the Prophet Muhammad, and focuses on the incidents that helped shape Islamic mysticism. You also consider the special character of the Qur'an, the "Mother of all Books," as a revelatory text and as the source for mystical experience within Islam. x
  • 27
    The House of Islam
    In this lecture, you learn more about the Islamic faith and its key tenets and structures, including its basic convictions concerning God and the world, prophets and books, submission and infidelity. Tracing the teaching of the Qu'ran, you examine the "five pillars" of Islam: confession, prayer, alms, fasting, and pilgrimage. x
  • 28
    The Mystical Sect—Shi'a
    Nearly since its founding, Islam has been divided into factions based on disputes over authority. After surveying these divisions, you focus on the Shi'a party, which locates the heart of Islam in connection to the prophet and the prophet's family rather than in the larger Islam community. x
  • 29
    The Appearance of Sufism
    For a religion that is so fundamentally antiascetical, the emergence of Sufism—the distinctive form of Islamic mysticism—is something of a surprise, as is its remarkable success. This lecture assesses various possible causes for this development, and then sketches the Sufi way of life as a path of knowledge, love, and prayer. x
  • 30
    Early Sufi Masters
    A sampling of Sufi passages from the 8th to the 10th centuries demonstrates how the Qur'an was interpreted mystically, and how the quest for Allah could be captured by the form of traditional Arabic poetry. The lecture discusses traditions associated with a number of Sufi mystics, including the controversial figure of al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj. x
  • 31
    The Limits of Mysticism—Al-Ghazzali
    The first centuries of Islam saw both a spectacular spread of the religion and an explosion in innovative speculation in philosophy and theology. In this lecture, explore this vibrant period, the resulting impact of Islam thought on the West, and the contributions made by one of Islam's most important thinkers, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali. x
  • 32
    Two Masters, Two Streams
    Sufi mysticism navigates between an emphasis on knowledge and an emphasis on love. In this lecture, you explore the work of two contemporary 13th-century masters who represent these two strains and exercised substantial influence on subsequent generations of Sufi teachers: Ibn al-'Arabi and Jalal al-Din Rumi. x
  • 33
    Sufism in 12th–14th Century North Africa
    Sufism spread through all the territories won by Islamic conquest and was one of the chief instruments of Islam's expansion. This lecture takes up the lives and writings of three Sufi teachers in North Africa: the Egyptians Sufi Umar ibn al-Farid and Ibn 'Ata' Illah, and Ibn 'Abbad of Ronda, a Sufi born in Spain who flourished in Morocco. x
  • 34
    Sufi Saints of Persia and India
    Sufism is truly an international movement and its literature is as rich in Persian as in Arabic. Here, you examine some examples of this tradition, including the Intimate Conversations of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, the Divine Flashes by Fakhruddin 'Iraqi, and Fawa'id al-Fu'ad's Morals for the Heart. x
  • 35
    The Continuing Sufi Tradition
    Today, mysticism continues to thrive within Islam, and Sufism has become an appealing spiritual option even for non-Muslims. This lecture explores the extensive network of Sufi fellowships throughout the world and how they continue the traditions of finding mystical meaning in the Qur'an. x
  • 36
    Mysticism in the West Today
    The course concludes with a series of reflections on mysticism in the modern world. What are we to make of the truth-claims of mystics? What are the possibilities for mysticism in a super-secularized West? What can we say about the popular forms of mysticism offered on every side? x

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Luke Timothy Johnson
Ph.D. Luke Timothy Johnson
Emory University

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. A former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson has taught at Yale Divinity School and Indiana University, where he received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching, was elected a member of the Faculty Colloquium in Teaching, and won the Brown Derby Teaching Award and the Student Choice Award for teaching. At Emory University, he has twice received the On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2007 he received the Candler School of Theology Outstanding Service Award. His most recent award is the 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for the ideas set forth in his 2009 book, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Professor Johnson is the author of more than 20 books, including The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels and The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, which is widely used as a textbook. He has also published several hundred scholarly articles and reviews.

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Reviews

Rated 3.4 out of 5 by 19 reviewers.
Rated 2 out of 5 by A weak, disappointing course, sad to say DVD REVIEW: I was looking forward so eagerly to learning about mysticism in these three leading religions, but the bottom line is that I did not come out of the course with much of an impression and was left with many questions unanswered, still wondering what it was all about! Many "mystics" were considered in the talks, across the ages, and I understand that such persons claim, or are attributed with, the ability to connect directly with the supreme being via concentration, dreams and trances, to receive special wisdom and insights. The rest of the course is a mish-mash of names and loads of complicated (and often fuzzy) quotes of, apparently, a higher intellectual and esoteric nature, requiring special interpretation. Not a winning general course, I'm afraid. Perhaps it is more suited to very advanced, postgraduate students in this field of study, for whom the many details and quotes will have meaning and significance. I am deeply concerned over the accusations of factual error brought against the lecturer by several reviewers who state themselves to be experts in areas pertinent to this series, namely Judaism and Islam, and the related languages. Perhaps Dr Luke Timothy Johnson, who has a long serious background in Christianity (apparently left the Benedictine brotherhood to get married), should have been called on to lecture on mysticism in Christianity only. One small complaint: I find it intensely annoying when an English-speaking non-Muslim pronounces the name "Muhammad" with some kind of guttural sound to the "h". This is entirely pretentious; the same applies to pronouncing "Qur'an" with a kind of glottal stop in the middle. Dr Johnson comes across as very much an apologist for Islam... "such an appealing religious tradition for many in today's world". Not a recommended course, sadly, one of the few failures in the Great Courses series. April 17, 2013
Rated 3 out of 5 by Review Some of it is interesting. There was point however where I got the impression he was yelling at us. April 9, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Vital introduction to crucial aspect of Faith The purpose of studying this course was to gain an understanding of the place of mysticism within each of the Abrahamic Faiths. Professor Johnson gave an insightful introduction of what is an absolutely essential tradition within each of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Mysticism is the label he has given to the views, writings and actions of those believers who have claimed a direct apprehension of the Divine Realm; not the actual Divine in itself perhaps but attributes of the Divine that stand outside the physical world. The mystics' claims are that Reason/rationality alone cannot allow us to reach such metaphysical knowledge; rather it is "illumination" or "Intellect" that is the pathway to this gnosis. Professor Johnson shows two important lessons from the mystical tradition: a) it is an essential feature of all three Abrahamic Faiths and b) there is tremendous similarity across all 3 Faiths in the nature of the knowledge/gnosis that mysiticism reveals. I have given "only" a 4 star because: - clearly this is course that offers only a "bird's eye" view of the subject. Inevitable of course given it covers 2000+ years of history across three Faith traditions! - the Professor's depth of knowledge of mysticism within Islam is nowhere near that of his in the other two Faiths. He acknowledges this and the lectures on Islam remain valuable introductions. But if you have read works on Sufism(which is the mystical tradition in Islam) by Louis Massignon, Anne Marie Schimmel or SH Nasr then you will note one or two not entirely accurate descriptions. Despite the above the course is recommended as the extent of mysticism within each Tradition may not be well known outside scholarly circles and the commonality of vision amongst mystics across each of the 3 Faiths is even less well known. I for one would absolutely purchase seperate courses (either 24 or 36 lectures) on mysticism within each Faith to augment the valuable introduction afforded by these lectures. March 11, 2013
Rated 1 out of 5 by Islam and Judaism not accurately portrayed The instructor of this course is not an expert in Judaism or Islam. His attempts to explain Hebrew and Arabic terms are laughably amateurish. As an expert in these languages and religions looking for a fun lecture, I was not satisfied. At one point, the professor accidently uses the wrong name for one of the medieval Jewish figures (Yehudah He-Hasid), getting it mixed up with a modern figure (Eliezer Ben Yehudah). In the lecture in which he tries to explain Arabic etymologies, the instructor gaffs at every turn. He even incorrectly tells the audience that a certain Arabic word (shirk) is the source for a familiar English word (shirk). The unit on Christianity is good, but that is the instructor's area of research. The Teaching Company strikes out with this production. July 12, 2011
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