More people now report that they have had mystical experiences than did 40 years ago. So why are Luke Timothy Johnson and The New York Times's Ross Douthat concerned that the mystical, ascetic aspects of religion are on the wane? For Douthat, the concern is that the mystical path has become diluted. Instead of existing as a "radical alternative" to ordinary life, mystical practices have become safe, hygienic hobbies in an "upwardly mobile life." He wonders, in short, whether our buffet-style approach to spirituality is cheapening our religious experiences.
In a sense, Americans seem to have done with mysticism what we've done with every other kind of human experience: We've democratized it, diversified it, and taken it mass market. No previous society has offered seekers so many different ways to chase after nirvana, so many different paths to unity with God or Gaia or Whomever. A would-be mystic can attend a Pentecostal healing service one day and a class on Buddhism the next, dabble in Kabbalah in February and experiment with crystals in March, practice yoga every morning and spend weekends at an Eastern Orthodox retreat center.
So what's the problem with that? "By making mysticism more democratic," suggests Douthat, "we've also made it more bourgeois, more comfortable, and more dilettantish." Meanwhile, the "extraordinary examples" of faith--monasteries, mystics--are declining. Has faith become "just another form of worldliness, therapeutic rather than transcendent"?