Descriptive Disenchantment and Prescriptive Disillusionment: Myths, Mysticism, and Psychotherapeutic Interpretation

  • Ira Helderman
Part of the Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Mysticism book series (INTERMYST)


This chapter investigates the differences between how religious studies scholars and psychotherapists approach the subject of mysticism. Writing from my dual location, as both religious studies scholar and practicing clinician, I consider the proposition that scholars only offer descriptions, explanations, and interpretations of mystical experiences, while psychotherapists make prescriptions as to whether such experiences represent healthy or unhealthy stages of human development. Throughout the chapter, I trace distinctions between descriptive and prescriptive treatments of the topics of mysticism and mystical experience from both therapists and scholars. Ultimately, we will find that many of the prescriptions that psychotherapists make when it comes to mystical experience may more rightly be considered descriptions of a perceived reality, a set of natural processes they believe they only observe. Conversely, we will find that scholars’ descriptions, explanations, and interpretations of mystical experience are also often highly prescriptive. It is simply that the prescriptions they advance are meant to achieve different ends from symptom reduction in individual patients. When scholars analyze the discourse of mystical experience, they often advance implicit and explicit claims about what is more or less beneficial, perhaps even more or less healthy, for society as a whole. Finally, I show that these considerations are fundamental to the discourse surrounding the entire subject of mysticism as both scholars and psychotherapists deliberate on the relationship between experiences and their interpretation. Ultimately, an examination of the distinctions between scholars and psychotherapists’ treatments of the mystical tells us something important about the discipline of religious studies as a whole and, along the way, a thing or two about psychotherapy as well.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ira Helderman
    • 1
  1. 1.Vanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA

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