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Comparative Study of Mysticism: Assignment Tips

Research tools and tips for the study of mysticism in various religious traditions

Assignment Tips

Assignment Purpose

The purpose of the assignment is for students to focus on a single mystic or text, to become familiar with the available scholarship on that topic, and to assess critically the trends in that scholarship with regard to the developing discourse in the academic study of mysticism.

Assignment Details

Copy of Assignment: Research Paper and Oral Presentation Guidelines

  1. Choose a specific, narrowly defined topic, i.e., a particular historical person who has been identified as a “mystic” or a single text that has been identified as “mystical.”
  2. Discuss and analyze at least two examples of scholarship on the topic that have substantial disagreements or are saying substantially different things about it.

Issues to Consider

  1. What do scholars mean when they identify the chosen historical figure/text as mystical?
  2. Are they in agreement as to what type of mysticism is illustrated?
  3. What do they suggest is the significance of this historical instance of mysticism?
  4. Do scholars display familiarity with or address directly the scholarly discourse on mysticism?
  5. Do scholars attempt to discuss this figure/text within a comparative framework?
  6. Are there any particular issues that seem especially to divide different scholarly ‘camps?’
  7. What issues have been at stake in the interpretations of this figure/text?
  8. What new issues would you raise in the interpretation of this figure/text?

What You'll Need to be Successful

In order to search for information on your topic, you will need:

  • A broad topic
  • A narrow topic
  • Possibly, a more specific narrow topic.
  • Possibly Background information on your narrow topic, from which you will derive a list of search terms, of people, places, dates, etc.  You’ll then use these terms to search for books and articles on your topic.
  • A list of scholars that have engaged in the scholarly debate on your topic. This list will develop as you conduct your research and begin identifying scholars who have taken part in the scholarly conversation.

General Assignment Tips

  1. Learn about your topic by searching for background information as you would find in encyclopedias or even on the Internet.
  2. From the background info, develop a list of search terms.
  3. Use the search terms you develop to search for books, articles, and other materials in the library's online research tools/resources. 

Background Information

If you're not familiar with your topic, you may need to look for background information about it.

Found in:

  • Academic web sites  - Use your favorite search engine
  • Wikipedia or other non-academic web sites - Use your favorite search enegine (you won't use this in your paper, just to learn about your topic)
  • Encyclopedias and other reference sources - Use those listed on the  Encyclopedias and More page of the Research Guide for this class.

What to extract from the background information that you read:

  • Information about important dates, events, places, and people associated with your topic.
  • Terminology, concepts, and definitions of terms related to your topic.
  • Textual sources
  • Names of scholars engaging in the conversation.
  • Bibliographies of sources for further investigation/reading.

From the information you discover in the background sources, develop a list of search terms that you can then use to search for books, articles, and other materials relevant to your topic.

Following the Scholarly Conversation - Where to Look for Resources on Your Topic

 Sources to consult and what to look for in each source:

  • Books (general works and/or biographies about an historical person, general works on a tradition or text, bibliographies) - Use the Library's online catalog to locate.
    • Read the introductions (may discuss other scholars who have written on the topic), text, footnotes, and bibliography
  • Journal Articles – Use article databases to locate articles in scholarly journals
    • Read the text, footnotes/endnotes, and bibliography
  • Book Reviews - Use the article databases to locate book reviews on your topic. Most databases allow you to limit your search to "book reviews" from the choice of limiters on the Advanced Search page.
    • Many book reviews will compare the book being reviewed with other books written by scholars on the same subject. Reading book reviews is a good way to discover who is writing about a topic and the disagreements that may exist among scholars.
  • Web searches – Use as a last resort. Try Google Scholar first, then the general web. 
    • May provide access to scholarly articles and/or book reviews.

Keep in mind when you are searching for books in the library catalog or articles using an article database that you may need to try several combinations of search terms before you locate the best information on your topic. Using the word mystic* as one of your search terms, in conjunction with other terms related to your topic, may or may not produce the best results. For some topics, adding the word myst* won't retrieve any information. If that is the case, you will need to try various search term combinations until you stumble upon the right combination to locate the best information. Determining the best combination of search terms is not an exact science, but rather a process of trial and error.  


 
EXAMPLE

  • Broad topic: Christian mysticism or mystics
  • Narrow topic: St. Augustine as a mystic OR Texts of Augustine that are considered mystical in nature

Background information for this example:

Depending on your focus, you will look for

  • important events, people, places in Augustine’s life, and/or
  • passages within texts that Augustine may have written

that would make scholars debate whether Augustine is a mystic or had a mystical experience.
 

Possible background sources to consult on this topic:

  • Encyclopedias
  • Academic Web sites
  • Wikipedia or other non-academic web sites - Use your favorite search engine

An example of the type of information you might find in a background source:

Van Fletern, Frederick. “Confessiones.”  Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Alad D. Fitzgerald, ed.  Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999, p. 231. See also, "Mysticism" in the same work, pp. 576-579.

“In Confessiones, Augustine describes the period from immediately after his conversion until the death of his mother in late 387. The apex of this book is the "vision at Ostia." Augustine's baptism receives scarcely a mention. By contrast Augustine's and Monnica's vision is described in great detail. Whether the nature of this vision at Ostia (and those at Milan in Confessiones 7) is mystical has evoked intense controversy. Some have thought that Augustine reports his first proof for the existence of God in Milan and that only the vision at Ostia is truly mystical (Quinn). Others think Augustine reports a phenomenology of mystical experience (Marrou). The majority are of the opinion that Augustine has given us a description of his own mystical experience, the precise nature of which is further debated (Courcell, Mandouze, Bonner, Van Fletern). Detailed philogical analyses of passages concerning visions in Confessiones and other works of Augustine indicate that, according to his own categories, the visions at both Milan and Ostia are genuinely mystical; Augustine had short, direct intuitions of the divine. But he was disappointed and longed for a permanent vision of God in this life. Until circa 393 he thought human beings could attain prolonged vision with God's help in this life. Because of a close reading of Paul's epistle to the Galations, Augustine had given up such a project by the time of Confessiones. Many of his early works at Cassiciacum, Rome, and Thagaste are best understood as intellectual purifications (exercitationes animae) preparatory for the ascent of the mind to God. The early works on the soul are attempts to turn inward to discover what humans really are. The term mystice is seldom used by Augustine and never in the sense of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystics, yet Augustine most assuredly had intuitive insight into the nature of the Godhead.”

 Search terms extracted from this and other sources that you can use to locate books and articles on this topic:

  • Augustine
  • Monnica (Monica)
  • mystic, mysticism, mystical experience
  • Ostia
  • Milan
  • Vision
  • Encounter
  • Union
  • Ascent (of the mind or soul to God)
  • Plotinus
  • Neo-platonic influence
  • Plotinian ascent (of the mind or soul to God)

Relevant texts written by Augustine:

  • Confessions, Book 7, specifically, Chapters 10 and 17
  • Confessions, Book 9, specifically, Chapter 10
  • On the Soul (De animae Quantitate), passage 33.73-76
  • On the Literal Meaning of Genesis (De genesi ad litteram), Chapter 12

Important scholars taking part in the conversation:

Sometimes the sources you consult for background information will make mention of important scholars who have written on the subject. Search for works written by these scholars when using the library catalog and article databases.

Based on the information gathered from the background information, a more specific topic could be formulated:

  • Augustine’s mystical experiences as described in the Confessions, especially, the so-called vision at Ostia

Next steps in the research of this topic:

  1. Read the texts in which Augustine describes his vision and ascent to God (if the Library owns them, you should be able to find them by searching the Library's online catalog).
  2. Use the search terms you developed from the background sources to search for books, articles, and other materials using the online Library catalog and article databases listed on this Research Guide.
  3. Search the Library catalog and article databases listed on this guide to determine whether the Library provides access to books and articles authored by the scholars taking part in the conversation on this topic.

Note: When looking for books in the Library catalog on a text or an historical figure, it sometimes helps to add the words "readers guide," "reader's companion," "companion" or "commentary," to your list of search terms.

For example: "reader's companion" AND Confessions.

Use the information that you located to answer the questions of the assignment:

  1. What do scholars mean when they identify the chosen historical figure/text as mystical?
  2. Are they in agreement as to what type of mysticism is illustrated?
  3. What do they suggest is the significance of this historical instance of mysticism?
  4. Do scholars display familiarity with or address directly the scholarly discourse on mysticism?
  5. Do scholars attempt to discuss this figure/text within a comparative framework?
  6. Are there any particular issues that seem especially to divide different scholarly ‘camps?’
  7. What issues have been at stake in the interpretations of this figure/text?
  8. What new issues would you raise in the interpretation of this figure/text?

Other possible questions/issues to address:

  • Do some scholars discuss the historical instance or event outside of the language of mysticism, thereby allowing for another interpretation of the event or the text? 

For example:

  • Augustine was heavily influenced by the philosophy of the neoplatonics, such as Plotinus. Some scholars may therefore interpret the event at Ostia as an extension of the neoplatonic influence on Augustine's thought and language, without any mystical significance whatsoever.

My contact information is located in the right-hand column (at the top) of this page. Feel free to contact me if you need help locating information for your topic.

 

Your Librarian

Brian Kooy
Philosophy, Religious Studies, Middle East Studies, Global Studies, and Political Science Librarian
 
Contact Info
Library South | 5th floor | Suite 542 | bkooy@gsu.edu