William Harmless
Oxford University Press, 2007
368 pp., $20.95

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Reviewed by Nathaniel Peters

Raids on the Ineffable

A lucid account of eight mystics refutes the notion that "all religions are the same at the top."

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At this point the reader is justified in wondering how Dogen could be categorized as mystic in the same vein as Bernard of Clairvaux. If we think of mysticism as the soul's union with God, or as an exploration of the natures of God and man—Harmless' preliminary definition of mysticism—then Dogen is not a mystic. But if you broaden the definition of mysticism, as Harmless does in his conclusion, to include profound experiential knowledge of God or of ultimate reality, Dogen and Bernard fall into the same category. The fact remains, however, that the Christian conception of knowing a personal God and the deity-free Buddhist conception of realizing Buddha-nature are markedly different. Indeed, Harmless says that his goal is "to take up and to take on the widespread claim that 'all religions are all the same at the top,' that 'mystics are all experiencing the same thing.' … I hope I've shown here … that such claims are simply nonsense, that those who make them have simply not done their homework." Harmless has shown this well, but he leaves the reader wanting to know more about how Buddhist and Christian mysticism differ.

That aside, Mystics accomplishes everything Harmless sets out to do. With miraculous clarity, Harmless leads the reader through the select mystical texts and ends by reiterating what the reader now already knows: mystics cannot be separated from the scriptures, liturgy, communities, and history that formed them. Mysticism may be experiential theology, but it is still theology. In making that case with such lucidity, William Harmless has provided the lay reader with an outstanding introduction to the great mystics and their writings.

Nathaniel Peters is a junior fellow at First Things.

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