I did think of Quakerism as "mystical" during the time I was first exposed to it. At that time I tended to place views of the world on a spectrum running from rational/objective/cerebral at one pole to mystical/religious/intuitive at the other. On that spectrum Quakerism as I had experienced it was much much closer to the mystical pole than the rational, because it involved inner experiences, spiritual ecstasies, and passionate commitments. Within my first Friends Meeting, the meeting in Albany, New York, I also viewed the members of the meeting itself as falling at different points along that spectrum, and I tended (especially in reaction to my pre-Quaker agnostic humanism) to identify with those on the "mystical" end. (Interestingly, it seemed to me at the time that these "mystical" Friends were also the ones less concerned about respectability and more open to a bold witness against the then-raging War in Viet Nam.)
The first challenge I encountered to this one-dimensional way of categorizing religions was Lewis Benson's book "Catholic Quakerism: A Vision for all Men", which I read in 1969 a few months after I became a draft resister. I also heard Lewis speak at a meeting of the Quaker Theological Discussion Group that year. Lewis was not an academic professional. He was a retired printer and a self-taught student of George Fox, the early Friends, and the early Christian Church. His interest in Fox stemmed from a spiritual struggle against personal despair in many ways quite like Fox's.
Many Friends had a hard time understanding Lewis in those days, since he didn't fit into any of the theological categories that Friends were used to. They tended to patronize him at first and then to grudgingly concede that he knew what he was talking about, even if his take on it was unconventional. Some thought that his interest in 300 year-old documents was excessive and that the kind of Quakerism he talked about was a dead issue with little contemporary appeal. Yet, my experience was that whenever the radical young Friends of the 1970's came across his writing they were very excited and engaged. I never became a thorough-going adherent Lewis's ideas, but they did greatly influence me. Lewis took the trouble to actually read George Fox's Journal, his epistles, and his doctrinal writings - a common enough undertaking today among serious Friends, but relatively rare at that time. (For one thing, most of those books were then long out of print). From this reading, Lewis concluded that the essential message of early Quakerism was a message about Jesus Christ, but a quite different message from those of the mainline churches and fundamentally incompatible with them. He thought this message had been eclipsed in succeeding centuries and replaced with a variety of poor substitutes in the various branches of modern Quakerism. One of these poor
substitutes was the idea that Quakerism is essentially a mystical religion arising within the Christian tradition, and that it was in some ways a closer cousin of mystical Islam, mystical Buddhism, and so on than to other Christian groups.
The message of Quakerism itself, in Lewis' view, had to do with calling forth a community that would "hear and obey" its Creator through listening to the voice of Jesus Christ as a "Living prophet". I invite and encourage people to look up Lewis Benson's writings and learn more about this approach for themselves. Rather than try to summarize all that he had to say (and then distinguish it from what I believe), I'll move on to state some of my own views more directly. First, I feel compelled to point out that I was over-simplifying things in my early Quaker years by identifying "mysticism" with a focus on inward spiritual or religious experience. There are many spiritual traditions with a heavy emphasis on such experiences that we would not normally call "mystical". The Methodist Church in which I grew up was the spiritual heir of John Wesley, whose life was changed by what he called a "heart-warming experience" of God's free grace. The Methodist pastors in my home town hoped to lead their flocks to a similar experience, and we Methodists often participated with other churches in evangelical revival-style retreats and rallies much more focused on spiritual feelings and inward spiritual
struggles than on any dry recitation of doctrine. But no one calls Methodists and Baptists "mystics". The same could be said, only more so, for the various pentecostal and charismatic churches and the charismatic movements within more mainline denominations. All very big on feeling and experience: none classified as "mystical".
That's because there is more to "mysticism", as that term is usually used, than a focus on feelings and spiritual experiences. The word doesn't have a single definition that fits all cases. But people described as "mystics" tend to view their spiritual experiences, perhaps in conjunction with various disciplines or "spiritual practices" as pathways to some kind of exalted spiritual state: whether it is a state of union with God or of self-emptying nirvana or simply of detached egoless enlightenment. Often these aspirations are related to a kind of pantheism: the belief that the very universe IS God. Alternatively, some mystics see the material universe as an illusion ("maya") and aspire to penetrate the illusion. Finally, some mystics see individual human beings as "divine". (Indeed, this is the interpretation some Friends today give to George Fox's phrase about "that of God in everyone", but I don't believe Fox himself would have approved of that interpretation.) I, as a Quaker, on the other hand, do not aspire to lose my identity in some kind of fusion with God or with the universe. Nor do I seek to obliterate my ego and achieve nirvana. I do want to overcome and see through my various illusions (and they seem to be legion), but I don't anticipate that this will involve coming to think of God's material creation as unreal and only the Spirit as real. I aspire simply to live as a creature of God who loves and tries to serve my Creator and His creation.
I wait on God in silence and often feel that God's spirit moves within me and among the gathered community of fellow-worshippers. Guidance comes to me and I try to be faithful to it. Moreover, along the way I have had some very vivid experiences that I suppose some would classify as "mystical". I don't view these experiences as the goal of my religious life, but as helps that Christ has given to me (usually in my hours of greatest need, greatest sin or greatest weakness) to help me find my way back toward Him. I do not believe that God is a part of me, nor that His power is available to me for my private and personal wishes. I believe that God is the Creator of all that is, but that He is different from and greater than that which He has created. In all of these things I feel I am in harmony with the witness of George Fox and early Friends. But I don't think that makes me a mystic.
- - Rich
P.S. I fear in rereading this that I have stated some things too strongly. One way in which I am temperamentally different from Lewis Benson is that I usually try to look more for points of contact with other people's views than points of contrast. I hope I have not said anything here to offend any sincere and earnest mystic or anyone who prefers to classify herself or himself as such.