Interpersonal Neurobiology and the Study of Mysticism

By: Andrew Vogel Ettin  

This paper presents interdisciplinary humanities research on Jewish and Christian mysticism in comparison with Daniel J. Siegel’s model of interpersonal neurobiology and Thomas Metzinger’s cognitive work on the phenomenal self as a process of becoming. On basis of a multi-year interdisciplinary collaboration on the study of Jewish and Christian mystical traditions, the presenters argue four propositions. Paralinguistic mystical practices on the threshold of the spoken, sung, and written word function as key interpersonal neurobiological tools to create community health and psychophysiological phenomenal selves-in-process and selves-in-community; Although both Judaism and Christianity are generally described as “religions of the book,” this literacy-biased descriptor is misleading if applied as an exclusivist definition. Letters, words, and sentences augmented or replaced by gestures and extra-verbal rituals have been communally understood to carry intrinsic creative and/or destructive power. The neurobiological shift in emphasis on the power of sound and spoken word collapses the traditional religious distinction between “low” magic and “high” religion, “folk” and “elite” spirituality. To become fully socialized as participants in a religious culture, all members of a religious community must develop a minimum of mystical comprehension of paralinguistic practices. We argue that defined in this way, mysticism as a spectrum of practices thus has never been marginal as many scholars have claimed, but indeed has been central to religious identity formation. Scientific insights from neurobiology and mindful awareness training rehabilitate the status of mystical traditions that have been practiced over the span of two and half millennia, but often understood to be marginal.

Education Institutions
Religious Community and Socialization
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Dr. Andrew Vogel Ettin

I am an ordained rabbi and have been the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, Salisbury, NC since 1990. I am also a Professor Emeritus of English, Wake Forest University, where I taught early modern English literature as well as Jewish studies in the departments of English and Religion, the M.A.L.S. program and the School of Divinity. My academic degrees include A.B., Rutgers College (English); M.A. and Ph.D., Washington University, (English); and M.S.J.S., Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies (Religion). My four published books are Literature and the Pastoral (Yale Univ. Press, 1984); Betrayals of the Body Politic (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1990), a study of the South African Jewish writer Nadine Gordimer; and Speaking Silences: Stillness and Voice in Modern Thought and Jewish Tradition (Univ. Press of Virginia, 1993) and The Service of Beauty: Discovering Art and Ethics in Jewish Worship (BookSurge, 2009). I am also the author of several articles and reviews in the areas of English literature, Jewish spirituality and pedagogy.