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Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, Islam

Engage with the mystical side of the Abrahamic religions with this course that investigates the often overlooked and misunderstood phenomenon of spiritual experiences in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 39.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Survey Wonderful introduction to mysticism in Western religions. Johnson covers a wide variety of texts. While sympathetic to his subjects, Johnson nevertheless employs critical analyses to them. A few quibbles: at times the reader is left wondering where literary imagery ends and where true mysticism begins. Also, he seems to underplay the mystical nature of the sacraments in Christianity. Lastly, while I found his treatment of Sufism fascinating, I wonder whether its importance within Islam is exaggerated. All the same, a series of excellent erudition.
Date published: 2023-02-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from so-so Johnson is quite knowledgeable and likes to show it in a rather condescending way. Still, if you can tolerate his over dramatic halting delivery you will likely learn something. He cleared up the Sunni-Shia split for me, something I wondered about for several years.
Date published: 2022-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Western Mysticism The Great Course is the Great Resource. The world has never known this opportunity to learn from the comfort of your own home. Who needs libraries? Great Teachers. Great literature to accompany the lectures. Great presentations; great graphics; and the great rewind button arguably makes it better than a live class; especially for students with short attention spans (like me). Professor Luke Timothy Johnson condenses vast research material and a lifetime of study into a few hours to highlight the pith of western mysticism. Mysticism is an intellectual approach to an experiential subject that is a dichotomy of unintelligible and yet cognizable revelation of the reality of God. Highly recommended for those who would forgo the intercessory approach to religion and seek direct relationship with scripture and the nature of God and our own being.
Date published: 2022-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Haven't viewed it but it is in my library. Other Great Courses have been excellent, so when they are on sale I buy them and put them in my library. I am very pleased that I am able to do this. I want to watch them in the future.
Date published: 2022-03-02
Rated 3 out of 5 by from A Course Best served watching Twice I tried is course several years ago and I was not in the right might set to listen to it. So this year I tried it again when I was more receptive to it. I like Professor Johnson a lot and I think he was a good person for this course. Mysticism is certainly a fascinating aspect of monotheist religions and as such it is one that is hard to define or describe. It was interesting to see all of the aspects of traditions of all three major religions. I hope that there might be one in the future about Eastern Mysticism.
Date published: 2020-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb lecture course I have just watched the course in full and can recommend it whole-heartedly. Professor Johnson is deeply committed to his subject and presents each tradition thoroughly and without any bias. His love mysticism is clearly demonstrated as is his grasp of the material he has selected.
Date published: 2020-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dynamic lecturer: informative and inspiring Fascinating subject covered in depth. I had some familiarity with Christian mysticism, but learned so much about the rich tradition in Judiasm and Islam
Date published: 2020-06-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear analysis of details Evolution of thought clearly illustrated century by century within each religion; also calls attention to how the ideas of religious leaders in one group compare to and differ from those in another as each religion evolves. Posts script of important segments of writings which illustrate the key thoughts of key religious leaders of each time frame with occasional reference to earlier texts and how this one alters them.
Date published: 2019-07-22
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While mysticism is often associated with Eastern religions, the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each have their own rich mystical traditions. With expert religious scholar Professor Luke Timothy Johnson as your guide, learn how mysticism forms a crucial—yet often overlooked—part of these three faiths.


Luke Timothy Johnson

I strive to make philosophy accessible and lovable to everyone. If everyone embraced philosophy, the world would be a much better place.


Emory University

Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Professor Johnson earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies from Yale University, as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Indiana University, an M.Div. in Theology from Saint Meinrad School of Theology, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. A former Benedictine monk, Professor Johnson has taught at Yale Divinity School and Indiana University, where he received the President's Award for Distinguished Teaching, was elected a member of the Faculty Colloquium in Teaching, and won the Brown Derby Teaching Award and the Student Choice Award for teaching. At Emory University, he has twice received the On Eagle's Wings Excellence in Teaching Award. In 2007 he received the Candler School of Theology Outstanding Service Award. His most recent award is the 2011 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for the ideas set forth in his 2009 book, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity. Professor Johnson is the author of more than 20 books, including The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels and The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, which is widely used as a textbook. He has also published several hundred scholarly articles and reviews.

By This Professor

Great World Religions: Christianity
The History of Christianity: From the Disciples to the Dawn of the Reformation
A Way into the Mystic Ways of the West

01: A Way into the Mystic Ways of the West

What do we mean by religion, mysticism, and prayer? What is the relation of mystical experience and mystical writing? In this opening lecture, you consider these questions and preview the path you will take as you consider the traditions of mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

32 min
Family Resemblances and Differences

02: Family Resemblances and Differences

You take a closer look at the traditions and observances of the three major Western religions and explore their complex interrelations and differences.

30 min
The Biblical Roots of Western Mysticism

03: The Biblical Roots of Western Mysticism

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the most powerful source both for the premises of Western mysticism and for its symbolism. Here, we consider the biblical images and themes that recur in mystical accounts, including the pilgrimage, the cloud, and the heavenly throne.

30 min
Mysticism in Early Judaism

04: Mysticism in Early Judaism

During the Hellenistic period (c. 300 B.C.E.–200 C.E.), Jews in Palestine and in the Diaspora found new ways to maintain fidelity to the covenant. This lecture explores three manifestations of mysticism from this period: apocalyptic literature, the writings of the Essenes, and the teachings of Hellenistic Jews.

30 min
Merkabah Mysticism

05: Merkabah Mysticism

While classical Judaism may seem legalistic and intellectually oriented, this same period saw the growth of a powerful form of mysticism centered in the emotional experience of a spiritual "ascent" to the heavenly throne-chariot ("Merkabah").

30 min
The Hasidim of Medieval Germany

06: The Hasidim of Medieval Germany

For Jews in Crusade-era Germany (1150–1250), dedication to the keeping of Torah was particularly perilous. During these dangerous times, a form of mysticism called Hasidism arose that appealed even to everyday people and found adherents beyond the small circle of accomplished scholars.

30 min
The Beginnings of Kabbalah

07: The Beginnings of Kabbalah

Although it was the most dominant form of Jewish mysticism for some seven centuries, Kabbalah's origins are shrouded in mystery. This lecture traces some of the early efforts in this tradition.

30 min
Mature Kabbalah—

08: Mature Kabbalah—"Zohar"

For countless Jewish practitioners of Kabbalah, the "Zohar" (Book of Splendor) ranks in status next to Torah and Talmud. Although presented as an ancient tradition, Kabbalah is actually the astonishing literary creation of the 13th-century Spanish Jewish mystic, Moses de Leon.

31 min
Isaac Luria and Safed Spirituality

09: Isaac Luria and Safed Spirituality

With the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Jewish mysticism took on themes of exile, loss, and messianism. This lecture examines a new strain of Kabbalistic teaching that arose during this period.

30 min
Sabbatai Zevi and Messianic Mysticism

10: Sabbatai Zevi and Messianic Mysticism

The elements of mysticism and messianism in the Lurianic teaching found explosive expression in Sabbatai Zevi, a self-proclaimed messiah and apostate whose teachings led to the founding of a new sectarian movement, Sabbatianism.

30 min
The Ba'al Shem Tov and the New Hasidism

11: The Ba'al Shem Tov and the New Hasidism

In the 18th century, a new form of popular Jewish mysticism arose in Eastern Europe, beginning with the charismatic career of Israel Ba'al Shem Tov. This lecture considers the life of the movement's founder as well as the character of its literature and piety.

31 min
Mysticism in Contemporary Judaism

12: Mysticism in Contemporary Judaism

Examining the distinct movements within modern Judaism (Reform, Orthodox, Conservative) and the rise as Zionism (the quest for a Jewish homeland in Israel), Professor Johnson asks a key question: What elements of mysticism persist in such an altered tradition?

29 min
Mystical Elements in the New Testament

13: Mystical Elements in the New Testament

Like the Old Testament, the writings of earliest Christianity can be read in terms of mystical experiences and symbols. You examine these mystical strains, as seen in discussions of Jesus's divine nature, and the apostle Paul's report of ascent to the third heaven.

31 min
Gnostic Christianity

14: Gnostic Christianity

The mid-2nd century witnessed a pitched battle between those seeking a standardized canon of Christian belief and a mystical strain of the faith—Gnosticism—that sought salvation through the pursuit of a special kind of divine knowledge.

31 min
The Spirituality of the Desert

15: The Spirituality of the Desert

With Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, some believers sought to create their own form of "white martyrdom" through a life of physical asceticism and prayer. Through works such as Athanasius's "Life of Antony," you examine the lives and teachings of these self-imposed ascetics.

30 min
Shaping Christian Mysticism in the East

16: Shaping Christian Mysticism in the East

This lecture considers three authors of the 4th century who are foundational to the development of the distinctive spirituality of Orthodoxy: Evagrius Ponticus, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Syrian monk called Pseudo-Macarius.

30 min
Eastern Monks and the Hesychastic Tradition

17: Eastern Monks and the Hesychastic Tradition

You continue consideration of mysticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church with an examination of how Greek influences fed into the development of the Hesychastic tradition, a form of mysticism that focuses on contemplative prayer.

30 min
The Mysticism of Western Monasticism

18: The Mysticism of Western Monasticism

As Eastern monks sought spirituality in the desert, the faithful of Western Catholicism turned to monasticism for a way to live God's will through contemplation. The works of Bernard of Clairvaux, William of St. Thierry, and Richard of St. Victor offer a window into this tradition.

30 min
Medieval Female Mystics

19: Medieval Female Mystics

The contemplative life flourished among women as well as men in the medieval period. This lecture explores the teaching and writings of these female mystics produced in monastic houses, in lay houses of the Beguines, and through the role of anchorite.

30 min
Mendicants as Mystics

20: Mendicants as Mystics

Unlike monks in the monasteries, members of the mendicant orders pursued the spiritual life while preaching and working among the people. In this lecture, you consider outstanding examples of mendicant mystics, including Francis and Clare of Assisi and Bonaventure.

30 min
English Mystics of the 14th Century

21: English Mystics of the 14th Century

Fourteenth-century England witnessed a remarkable surge in mystical activity and insight. This lecture looks at some of the finest examples, from the anonymous masterpiece, "The Cloud of Unknowing," to the distinctive works of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, and Julian of Norwich.

30 min
15th- and 16th-Century Spanish Mystics

22: 15th- and 16th-Century Spanish Mystics

In Spain, the Counter-Reformation produced a climate of intense spiritual renewal in the face of Protestant dissent. Following the inspired path of Ignatius of Loyola, whose Spiritual Exercises provided a template for contemplation, Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Francisco de Osuna provide examples of a new strain of Catholic mysticism.

31 min
Mysticism among Protestant Reformers

23: Mysticism among Protestant Reformers

While Martin Luther and John Calvin are best known for their attacks on what they regarded as the abuses found in medieval monasteries, they also taught a form of Christian piety in which the ascetical tradition continued to find a central place.

31 min
Mystical Expressions in Protestantism

24: Mystical Expressions in Protestantism

The mystical impulse also showed itself within various branches of Protestantism, as exemplified in the work of the most influential Protestant mystic, Jacob Boehme. You also explore the Pietism of P. J. Spener and the Anglican mysticism of Jeremy Taylor and William Law.

31 min
20th-Century Mystics

25: 20th-Century Mystics

Mysticism continues to flourish within the Christianity of the 20th and 21st centuries—in monasteries, in groups devoted to the prayerful reading of scripture, and in the communal ecstasies of Pentecostal worship. This lecture discusses three noteworthy modern-day mystics: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil, and Thomas Merton.

31 min
Muhammad the Prophet as Mystic

26: Muhammad the Prophet as Mystic

Professor Johnson opens a unit on Islam with a consideration of the life of the religion's founder, the Prophet Muhammad, and focuses on the incidents that helped shape Islamic mysticism. You also consider the special character of the Qur'an, the "Mother of all Books," as a revelatory text and as the source for mystical experience within Islam.

30 min
The House of Islam

27: The House of Islam

In this lecture, you learn more about the Islamic faith and its key tenets and structures, including its basic convictions concerning God and the world, prophets and books, submission and infidelity. Tracing the teaching of the Qu'ran, you examine the "five pillars" of Islam: confession, prayer, alms, fasting, and pilgrimage.

30 min
The Mystical Sect-Shi'a

28: The Mystical Sect-Shi'a

Nearly since its founding, Islam has been divided into factions based on disputes over authority. After surveying these divisions, you focus on the Shi'a party, which locates the heart of Islam in connection to the prophet and the prophet's family rather than in the larger Islam community.

31 min
The Appearance of Sufism

29: The Appearance of Sufism

For a religion that is so fundamentally antiascetical, the emergence of Sufism—the distinctive form of Islamic mysticism—is something of a surprise, as is its remarkable success. This lecture assesses various possible causes for this development, and then sketches the Sufi way of life as a path of knowledge, love, and prayer.

31 min
Early Sufi Masters

30: Early Sufi Masters

A sampling of Sufi passages from the 8th to the 10th centuries demonstrates how the Qur'an was interpreted mystically, and how the quest for Allah could be captured by the form of traditional Arabic poetry. The lecture discusses traditions associated with a number of Sufi mystics, including the controversial figure of al-Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj.

27 min
The Limits of Mysticism—Al-Ghazzali

31: The Limits of Mysticism—Al-Ghazzali

The first centuries of Islam saw both a spectacular spread of the religion and an explosion in innovative speculation in philosophy and theology. In this lecture, explore this vibrant period, the resulting impact of Islam thought on the West, and the contributions made by one of Islam's most important thinkers, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali.

30 min
Two Masters, Two Streams

32: Two Masters, Two Streams

Sufi mysticism navigates between an emphasis on knowledge and an emphasis on love. In this lecture, you explore the work of two contemporary 13th-century masters who represent these two strains and exercised substantial influence on subsequent generations of Sufi teachers: Ibn al-'Arabi and Jalal al-Din Rumi.

31 min
Sufism in 12th–14th Century North Africa

33: Sufism in 12th–14th Century North Africa

Sufism spread through all the territories won by Islamic conquest and was one of the chief instruments of Islam's expansion. This lecture takes up the lives and writings of three Sufi teachers in North Africa: the Egyptians Sufi Umar ibn al-Farid and Ibn 'Ata' Illah, and Ibn 'Abbad of Ronda, a Sufi born in Spain who flourished in Morocco.

31 min
Sufi Saints of Persia and India

34: Sufi Saints of Persia and India

Sufism is truly an international movement and its literature is as rich in Persian as in Arabic. Here, you examine some examples of this tradition, including the "Intimate Conversations" of Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, the "Divine Flashes" by Fakhruddin 'Iraqi, and Fawa'id al-Fu'ad's "Morals for the Heart."

30 min
The Continuing Sufi Tradition

35: The Continuing Sufi Tradition

Today, mysticism continues to thrive within Islam, and Sufism has become an appealing spiritual option even for non-Muslims. This lecture explores the extensive network of Sufi fellowships throughout the world and how they continue the traditions of finding mystical meaning in the Qur'an.

30 min
Mysticism in the West Today

36: Mysticism in the West Today

The course concludes with a series of reflections on mysticism in the modern world. What are we to make of the truth-claims of mystics? What are the possibilities for mysticism in a super-secularized West? What can we say about the popular forms of mysticism offered on every side?

32 min