Spirituality: Enthusiasm and Schwarmer

Currently, there is a wonderful online project jointly run by the immanent frame and killing the Buddha, the former the leading religion in the social sciences blog and the latter one of the leading religious essay online journals. The project is called freq.uenci.es: a collaborative genealogy of spirituality. It is a patchwork of first thoughts on evaluating and contextualizing the current use of the word spirituality. It is quite urbane, educated, and subtle. The project will have 100 short essays; currently they are up to essay number forty. Many of them are quite good.

I will post about several of the essays. I will start with the essay enthusiasm by Harvard Divinity School Prof Amy Hollywood.
I start with this one because people have lost the distinction between enthusiasm and schwarmer and have lost the sense of the dangers of enthusiasm. It is especially important because of the current turn to ruah and enflaming emotions in day schools, youth movements, and year in Israel. A decade ago, at an Orthodox forum on spirituality the important plenary speaker (as well as many of the minor speakers) considered enthusiasm as benign, harmless, and able to be confined by the normative. I was sitting next to Walter Wurzburger and the two of us repeatedly asked our joint question: What of the dangers of enthusiasm? Hume, Kant, Hegel as well as Mendelssohn and Krokhmal took time out of their philosophy to discuss the dangers of enthusiasm. It was as if no one had ever heard of the dangers. In Hasidic literature, the Mittler rebbe distinguishes real devekut from hearing from afar – where one works oneself up emotionally.

Amy Hollywood in her essay enthusiasm returns to these questions as a background by which to understand contemporary spirituality.

In German, there are two words—three even. Enthusiasmus, like the English enthusiasm, is rooted in the Greek “en theos,” to have the god within, to be inspired by god or the gods. But Enthusiasmus was inadequate to contain the sixteenth-century German reformer Martin Luther’s rage against those who purported to receive direct divine inspiration. For them, he coined the term Schwärmer, from the verb schwärmen, to swarm, as in the swarming of bees.

To be a Schwärmer, most often translated as enthusiast or fanatic, was to be ungovernable by either human or God.

In his essay “Superstition and Enthusiasm” (1741), the philosopher David Hume argues that enthusiasm is a disorder of the imagination, “an unaccountable elevation and presumption, proceeding from prosperous success, from luxuriant health, from strong spirits, or from bold and confident disposition

In the “strong spirits” that gave rise to enthusiasm, Hume argued, the imagination is given free reign, giving rise to “raptures, transports, and surprising flights of fancy.” The enfettered person may eventually take leave of all of her faculties and attribute her own fancies “to the immediate inspiration of the Divine Being who is the object of devotion.”

It is just here that the danger of enthusiasm lies, for if left unchecked:
the inspired person comes to regard himself as the chief favorite of the Divinity; and when this frenzy once takes place, which is the summit of enthusiasm, every whimsy is consecrated: human reason, and even morality are rejected as fallacious guides: and the fanatic madman delivers himself over, blindly, and without reserve, to the supposed illapses of the spirit, and to inspirations from above.

All of this marks the negative light in which Hume, like most of his enlightened peers, saw claims to direct divine inspiration, prophetic states, or rapturous trances. To be an enthusiast was decidedly not a good thing.

Even those among the religious who claimed to experience God in some direct way carefully demarcated themselves from the enthusiasts–or at least from the wrong kind of enthusiasts. Hume’s contemporary, John Wesley, argued that if enthusiasm was taken to mean “a divine impulse or impression, superior to all the natural faculties,” which for a brief time suspends reason and the other senses, then: “both the Prophets of old, and the Apostles, were proper enthusiasts; being, at divers times, so filled with the Spirit, and so influenced by Him who dwelt in their hearts.”

But this, Wesley notes, is not what most of his contemporaries meant by enthusiasm. Instead, they meant by it a kind of madness, a specifically religious madness, in which the sound mind preserved by true religion was destroyed. The enthusiast, for Wesley, is the person who believes he has grace when he does not, or who understands herself to be a Christian when she is not.

Enthusiasm is a kind of self-deception against which Wesley must warn those to whom he preaches. For Wesley the criteria for distinguishing between what we might call true and false enthusiasm, or between true religion and enthusiasm, are themselves spiritual. They are available only to those who have experienced God in their hearts. In the words of the historian Ann Taves, for Wesley, “if one could not see the distinction, one by definition had not had the experience.”
This emphasis on spiritual knowledge and the sort of circular reasoning to which it seemed to give rise is precisely the kind of thing against which Hume and his enlightenment colleagues argued.

So Hume goes on to explain that although his “first reflection is, that religions, which partake of enthusiasm are, on their first rise, much more furious and violent than those which partake of superstition,” he goes on to argue that over time, such religions become “much more gentle and moderate.” In their boldness and resoluteness, enthusiasts refuse to be beholden to others—and in particular to priests. They have “contempt of forms, traditions, and authorities” that Hume seems positively to admire. The superstitious, on the other hand, in the intensity of their fearful melancholy, turn to others for guidance, giving themselves over willingly to the authority of priests and religious institutions.
Read the rest here.

At her academic homepage, she has an essay that looks like a prior chapter to the above essay since it asks the prior questions and answers using medieval texts. Moderns are looking for self and medieval contemplatives are looking to internalize the text.Those interested in Neo-hasidism are already committed to the individual over the internalization.

Running like a thread throughout all these debates—theological, antitheological, historical, philosophical, and those pursued in the interdisciplinary study of religion—lies the attempt to distinguish true from false, sincere from insincere, supernaturally from naturally caused religious or spiritual experience (the terms may differ, but the general point remains the same). With these distinctions comes the recurrent presumption that genuine religious experience is immediate, spontaneous, personal, and affective and, as such, potentially at odds with religious institutions and their texts, beliefs, and rituals. As a number of scholars of religion—as well as Christian theologians—have recently shown, the danger in these discussions is that they miss the ways in which, for many religious traditions, ancient texts, beliefs, and rituals do not replace experience as the vital center of spiritual life, but instead provide the means for engendering it.

Yet, for Benedict, as for Cassian on whose work he liberally drew, the intensity and authenticity of one’s feeling for God is enabled through communal, ritualized prayer, as well as through private reading and devotion (itself carefully regulated).9 Proper performance of “God’s work” in the liturgy requires that the monk not simply recite the Psalms. Instead, the monk was called on to feel what the psalmist felt, to learn to fear, desire, and love God in and through the words of the Psalms themselves. For Cassian, we know God, love God, and experience God when our experience and that of the Psalmist come together:

To many contemporary readers, however, there might still seem to be something profoundly different between medieval conceptions of spiritual experience and their own. Even among the growing number of Americans who understand certain kinds of practice—meditation, prayer, and devotional reading among them—as essential to their spiritual experience, there is a suspicion of the particular form such practices take within Christianity and other religious traditions. I suspect that what is at issue here is the association of experience itself, and spiritual experience in particular, with what, for lack of a better word, I will call individualism.

A series of common questions seem to underlie many people’s conception of spiritual experience. How am I to have my own experience of the divine? How can I experience the divine personally, and isn’t such a desire rendered impossible within the framework of institutions that direct my understanding and experience of God? What happens to that aspect of my experience that is irreducible to anyone else’s? On the one hand, many who consider themselves spiritual understand their spirituality in terms of an attunement with nature or spirit—something that is bigger than and lies beyond the boundaries of themselves. Yet, on the other hand, there is a keen desire for this experience to be one’s own. What the medieval monk or nun whose ritual performances I have described here strives to attain is an experience of God that is in conformity with that of the Psalmist and other scriptural authors. The experience must become one’s own, and Bernard insists on the continued specificity of the individual soul. Yet, at the same time, to be a true Christian is to share in a common experience of God. Read the rest here.

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3 responses to “Spirituality: Enthusiasm and Schwarmer

  1. I’m not too clear when someone is a schwarmer. The Zohar’s worlds and sefirot are a priori without any tie in to experience, and have virtually no predictive power. When do we become schwarmers, in imagining such worlds, in thinking these terms point/refer to real transcendental entities, or must we also believe that we know they are real? Suppose someone accepts some story about heaven for the sake of finding a place for punishment and reward, which in turn is felt necessary for morality, but he doesn’t make any knowledge claims…he hopes, he imagines, he wishes and so on. What exactly is the sin? Why isn’t my imagination, my dreams and the like autonomous? Believing in God is ok, imagining a God who hangs out with angels whose names are….is schwarmerei. Why?

    • It would not be the Zohar or esoteric study. There are some forms of ruah, enthusiasm, seeking experience, fantasy, kumzitz, ebbings, emotional manipulation, rallys, or merging into the dancing that many thinkers consider as crossing a line. The point is that there is a line to these thinkers. Where the line actually is located is subject to debate.

  2. I’m not sure there’s a clear, apriori line separating genuine enthusiasm or emotion (a type of musing which neither Shaftesbury nor Mendelssohn rejected) from Schwarmerei. You know it when you see “it.” The “it” is what William James might have called “fruit.” In the case of Schwarmerei, I’d suggest identifying its fruit as “intentional” hatred and violence; i.e. hatred and violence directed at some intentional object or subject, namely other people, the world, and/or oneself.

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