Understanding mystical and relational spiritualities

Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2006

People engage in religious and spiritual practices for a variety of reasons but one common motivation is to better understand the purpose of life and to come to know their own individual place in the grand scheme of creation. As we each seek to answer these questions, we find ourselves on various spiritual adventures to experience the eternal through our own mortality.

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When we look at the various religions around the world, we begin to find a number of philosophical and ideological commonalities between and among the various disciplines, irrespective of the diverse rituals and ceremonies unique to each spiritual practice. Dr. Paul Laughlin, professor and chair of the department of religion and philosophy at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, has looked at the religions of the world and concludes that when all is said and done, faith traditions fall in only one of two categories or types. These are relational and mystical spiritualities.

What distinguishes the relational from the mystical is a subtle yet significant perspective of God and humankind's relationship to God. A relational spirituality is one in which God is seen as above and beyond both humankind and nature. In a relational approach, God is "up there/out there," other and apart from. The relationalist would say there is God and then there is other, or not God. All that is not God is held in relationship to God. Furthermore, in this separateness is a relationship which is often viewed as flawed or broken and to a greater or lesser degree in need of repair. Relational traditions and rituals are intended to bring one into communion or communication with the Divine. The highest state to be realized in a relational spirituality is to be in the presence of the Supreme. Mainstream Christianity, Judaism and Islamic traditions typify the relational spiritual approach.

The second is mystical or unitive spirituality. In a mystical spiritual perspective, God is seen as immanent. God is the essential, indwelling substance or spirit of all that is. God is seen or experienced not as a separate presence, but as the very essence of being. In the mystical perspective, one does not strive to come into the presence of God, but rather seeks to awaken an awareness of being a part of or one with God. The highest aspiration in a mystical tradition is to experience the oneness of the One. Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, generally fall in the more mystical and unitive category. However, this unitive model is also found in Judaism's Kabbalah, Islam's Sufism, Christian mysticism and the American Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau. Here in America, Unity, Religious and Divine Science are the most well know of the New Thought, mystical Christian and transcendental organizations. Each of these sects has evolved their own New Thought practices, but each seeks to awaken individual awareness to the mystery of the oneness of all being in and as God.

Whether one's heart resonates to the lofty precepts of a relational spirituality or sings to the blissful silence of mystical union, each offers humankind a path to understand God, and a way to move closer to the answers of the questions about our purpose and place in the grandness of life.

• Juneau resident Robert Buttcane is an interfaith minister and spiritual director of the Unity of Juneau, an affiliate of the Association of Unity Churches and Unity School of Christianity, Kansas City, Mo.

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