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Mysticism, Nature and Assessment of


Attempts to define mystical experience have been as diversified and as conflicting as attempts to interpret and assess its significance. This is not surprising, for the language used to express and describe mystical experience is richly paradoxical, figurative, and poetical. Even if at times a mystic chooses what look like austere and precise metaphysical terms, this may be only an apparent concession to logic, for he will employ these terms in senses far from normal. Mystics have called the Godhead a sheer "Nothing" and yet the ground of all. They have affirmed simultaneously that the world is identical with God and that the world is not identical with God.

Some discriminations are possible, even if exact definition is not. Mystical experience is religious experience, in a broad but meaningful sense of "religious." It is sensed as revealing something about the totality of things, something of immense human importance at all times and places, and something upon which one's ultimate well-being or salvation wholly depends. More specifically, a mystical experience is not the act of acquiring religious or theological information but is often taken to be a confrontation or encounter with the divine source of the world's being and man's salvation. An experience is not held to be mystical if the divine power is apprehended as simply "over-against" onewholly distinct and "other." There must be a unifying vision, a sense that somehow all things are one and share a holy, divine, and single life, or that one's individual being merges into a "Universal Self," to be identified with God or the mystical One. Mystical experience then typically involves the intense and joyous realization of oneness with, or in, the divine, the sense that this divine One is comprehensive, all-embracing, in its being. Yet a mystical experience may be given much less theological interpretation than this description suggests. A mystic may have no belief whatever in a divine being and still experience a sense of overwhelming beatitude, of salvation, or of lost or transcended individuality.

Some mystical experiences occur only at the end of a lengthy, arduous religious discipline, an ascetic path; others occur spontaneously (like much nature-mystical experience); others are induced by drugs such as mescaline or take place during the course of mental illness.

An important distinction can be made between the extrovertive (outward-looking) and introvertive (inward-looking) types of mystical experience. In the first of these, the subject looks out upon the multiplicity of objects in the world and sees them transfigured into a living, numinous unity, their distinctness somehow obliterated. In nature mysticism, a form of extrovertive experience, the items of nature are not lost to consciousness; rather they are seen with unusual vividness and all as "workings of one mind, the features/Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree" (William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 6). In the introvertive type, the mystic becomes progressively less aware of his environment and of himself as a separate individual. He speaks of being merged in, identified with, dissolved into, the One. The subject-object distinction vanishes altogether. Some of the best-known mystics testify to experiences of both types, but the introvertive, being at the furthest remove from ordinary experience, is usually held to be the more developed of the two.

Although we can call mystical experience a kind of religious experience, we do not discover agreement among mystics about the nature and status of the mystical goal. Christian and Islamic mysticism, for example, interpret the experience theistically, although not with complete consistency; the Upanishads and Theravāda Buddhism are not theistic. Pantheist, monist, and agnostic interpretations have been offered, all with some prima facie plausibility.

Alternative Religious Interpretations

The pantheist argues that mystical experience compels us to strip away anthropomorphic conceptions of deity and that although theism begins this work of refining, it stops long before it should. The theistic notion of God remains that of an infinite, supernatural individual. But apart from being intellectually unsatisfactory (infinity and individuality go awkwardly together), this picture contradicts the mystic's own experience, which is one not of an external face-to-face meeting with a deity but rather of merging with, and realizing one's own basic identity with, the mystical One. The theist has to set a great gulf between himself and his God; the mystic's experience testifies both to the existence of this gulf and, paradoxically, to its elimination. Brahman is both far and near.

Why have so many of the greatest Christian mystics used theistic language to describe their obviously intense mystical experiences? The pantheist will say that either they have simple-mindedly used the only religious terms they had been taughtdespite their unsuitabilityor else that the desire to conform to orthodox Christian dogma about God's transcendence has led them to muffle those parts of their individual experience that were opposed to it.

A pantheist interpretation claims that it alone does full justice to God's infinity and that its theology eliminates the last primitive remnants of deism. Since a mystical experience is a discovery, a realization, of what is eternally true, there need be no perplexing doctrines about special divine self-revelations and self-communications nor any interference with natural law. Accordingly, a mystical experience induced by drug or disease does not have to be judged illusory or demonic. In the determination of whether it is authentic or not, its causal circumstances are simply beside the point.

The theist, however, is not without a reply. He will reject the pantheist's conception of religious development. There has not been any general historical trend toward pantheism or monism in religion; and although early theisms were crudely anthropomorphic, this does not by itself entail that all personal language about God is equally false and crude. The doctrine of the Incarnation should teach the contraryat least within Christendom.

Pantheism and monism, argues the theist, map only the lower slopes of the mystic's ascent. They are concerned with the preliminary purging of the senses and intellect; their raptures do not testify to an achieved union with God but only to what is perhaps an unusually fresh, innocent, and aesthetically intense awareness of the created world and its beauty. The mescaline-user and the temporarily psychotic, who make extravagant claims for their own identity with the mystical One, ought tooften dothink more humbly of their experiences once normality returns. To the theist, the unio mystica is an objective that cannot be taken by assault; in the end, it is only the initiative, the grace, of God that bestows it. Causation does matter in this interpretation, and the inner, felt nature of the mystical experience cannot alone determine its authenticity.

Paradoxes of Religious Interpretations

Short decisive arguments can hardly be invoked to settle the dispute between these interpretations of mystical experience. The experiences themselves seem able to bear either interpretation; the choice between pantheism and theism is a choice between two massive conceptual systems. Neither account can claim the merit of being free from internal difficulties both conceptual and religious. Theism has somehow to combine the notions that God is immeasurably "other" to man and, yet, that mystical union is possible. Pantheism identifies world and God while maintaining their distinctness; it denies that "God" is simply another way of saying "world."

Still more perplexingly, some mystics of great eminence speak the languages of both pantheism and theism. Meister Eckhart's writings give full-blooded examples of each, as do those of the Indian mystic Śankara. Even in the Upanishads, although Brahman is said to be beyond relation, featureless, unthinkable, it (or he) is acknowledged to have personal aspects.

No precise or determinate idea, no particularized image, is allowed to be adequate to the mystical One. Although the ontological status of God seems at times to be that of a numinous individual being, at other times all hints of such a status are repudiated. "Simple people," said Eckhart, "imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. That is not so." The Divine is a "desert," a "void," an "abyss," a "wheel rolling out of itself," a "stream flowing into itself."

Mystics will not always allow one even to say unequivocally that God exists. The pseudo-Dionysius, for example, denied that either the category of existence or of nonexistence applied to the Divine. These tensions and this indeterminatenessGod is, or is not, a particular being, he is, or is not, an existentcan also be found in nonmystical theologies, but mysticism can enormously magnify them. Even Theravāda Buddhism contains deep-running paradox, despite its comparative reluctance to speculate at all. Attaining nirvāa, for instance, is like the extinguishing of a flame, yet nirvāa is not sheer simple extinction.

What attitude is it reasonable to adopt toward this display of tensions and antinomies? Four possibilities are worthy of serious discussion. (1) The paradoxes cannot be eliminated; they are to be taken literally and at their face value. Without paradox, we cannot speak of the mystic's experiences or of his God, but this is no argument against the truth of the mystic's claims. (2) The paradoxes are necessary in the same way that distortions of grammar and syntax are necessary to a poet attempting to say something that cannot be encompassed by ordinary language. They are not to be taken literally but are to be construed as analogies, hyperboles, metaphors, or oxymorons. (3) Since no logically coherent account of mystical vision seems attainable, it is more sensible to admit this fact and to believe the mystic's claim that his experience is ineffable and that all language falsifies it. We would now have a mysticism without a theology. A very high value could still be set upon mystical experience, but we should be reverently agnostic on all questions of interpretation. (4) The appearance of paradox in a piece of discourse is very often taken by philosophers as a reductio ad absurdum of its claims. (Compare the logician's story of the barber who shaves only those who do not shave themselves. When paradox arises over the question "Does the barber shave himself?," it is reasonable to infer that there logically cannot be a barber, so described.) Because the mystic says so many contradictory things about God, this demonstrates the logical impossibility of God's existence, so described. Criticisms charging illogicality can be supported by attempts to explain in naturalistic terms the mystical experiences themselves.

Evaluation of Responses to Paradoxes

Whether or not the paradoxes are finally to be judged literal and irreducible, we must clearly reject some of the speculations that are aimed at reducing their offense. For example, how God can be, but not by being an individual entity, is profoundly obscure. The mystery is not removed if we say that God is Being Itself or Being as such. Even if our ontology allowed such universals as "courage itself" or "blueness itself," we still could not meaningfully include Being Itself among their number; there is no characteristic named "being" that is common to all actual entities and that should figure in their complete description. "Being Itself" cannot logically refer to anything either particular or universal, divine or nondivine.

Similarly, if we are offended by the claim that God neither exists nor does not exist, we might try a familiar palliative and say that he is above being. Our concepts fail to grasp him precisely for that reason. "Above being" carries echoes of "above the turmoil," "above suspicion," "above praise," with "above" indicating distance from and superiority to something. But in order to be "above," one must first of all beand continue to be. "God is above being" really fails to satisfy the conditions under which any "above" sentence of this kind can have meaning. It can, of course, be given a sense if "being" here means finite and dependent being. But if God is superior to this sort of being, if he is infinite and independent, then that is a superiority of his nature, and to learn this about him gives us no help with the original paradox.

literal versus figurative language

The paradoxes and enigmas may have to stand, but why not take them as poetical, metaphorical, or symbolic language? Against that suggestion, it may be argued that if the paradoxes are metaphors, it should be possible to translate themat least roughlyinto direct, nonmetaphorical language. The only language available to the mystic, however, seems to be a language of irreducible paradox.

This argument is not very powerful. There are nonmystical topics about which it is impossible to speak without metaphor, such as important topics within the philosophy of mind. The history of conceptions of the mind is, in many of its facets, the history of changing metaphors, myths, and analogies. To defend a parallel account of mystical discourse would be less of a scandal to reason and logic than to insist on the literal view.

The literalist will reply that there is, in fact, no scandal to reason. The laws of logic work admirably for every situation where multiplicity is present. In the mystic's unique case, all multiplicity has vanished and with it, therefore, the applicability of those laws. The mystic's discourse is about the One that has no other; it lies beyond the province of logic.

This leaves us with a discomforting worry. If logic is inapplicable to the mystic's discourse, does that not come very close to saying that discriminations cannot be made in this field between sense and nonsense, the sound and the unsound?

The literal approach must be, for a philosopher, a desperate measure, a last resort only. To treat it as anything else would be methodologically perverse. Apart from the difficulties of discrimination, where logic is inoperative, the approach demands an unshakable prior conviction that the mystic's paradoxes are to be taken at their face value as reports of veridical insights. Here there is much that can be challenged.

We refused to dismiss the figurative account for not being able to translate its metaphors, or to give literal equivalents for its symbols and analogies. Yet that inability is nonetheless an embarrassment to it. When the mystic says, "God is a desert"; "God is a blinding light"; "God is, and is not, identical with the world"; or "The mystical enlightenment is an absolute emptiness which is absolute fullness"; we are compelled to accept these metaphors and paradoxes on the faithif we accept them at allthat they can be true in some inscrutable way of one and the same deity. This cannot be shown, although the mystic feels intensely that it is so. The skeptic complains that he cannot begin to see how such wildly incompatible predicates can refer to any one being, whereas he can understand with relative ease how they might, in fact, be the expression of some ecstatic inner experience of a quite noncognitive kind. He does not deny that some apparently incompatible predicates may be revealed as ultimately compatible. A psychoanalytic story can reveal how love and hate, desire and fear, can be harbored simultaneously by a person for a single object; the same can be true with conflicting analogies and metaphors. The last word of the mystic, however, is "ineffable"; he does not profess to have a reconciling story.

An objector might now suggest that it is easy enough to see how we could choose senses for the words abyss, desert, light, that would give us at least a glimmer of insight into their metaphorical reference to the same divine being. The words are rich enough in their connotations and implications, both near and remote. This is true, but it cannot be a key to all the paradoxes. Certain ones (like that of identity and difference between God and world) offer no scope at all for such imaginative siftings and surmisingsunless we paraphrase the mystic's claim so freely that he will disown our translation. "The world is, and is not, identical with God" does not mean to the pantheistic mystic that the world is godlike in some respects and not in others.

If a city were referred to as a desert, a trap, or a furnace, the selection of appropriate meanings for these words in their metaphorical use would be possible because of the knowledge of the given fixed point of reference: a city. However, the concept of city is ontologically stable and intelligible in a way that the concept of God is not. The mystic's paradoxical discourse is related ultimately to his basic assertions about God's metaphysical status; this makes his semantic situation enormously more complex and precarious. Once again, these reflections do not attempt to disprove the mystic's statements or even to show that they cannot be figurative as well as semantically sound. If the mystic had independent grounds for believing in God, then one could readily accept the claim that he could speak about this God only in oblique language. Some mystics would say that they do have such independent grounds, but for others the mystical experiences themselves, reported in the language of paradox, furnish the grounds of belief. Here the risk of delusion is higher.

mystical experience and agnosticism

"According to our scale of values," Rudolf Otto wrote, we shall consider the mystic's intuition "either a strange fantasy or a glimpse into the eternal relationships of things" (Mysticism East and West, p. 42). Need these be the only options? Might it not be possible to reject all the traditional interpretations of mystical experience but yet accord it very high intrinsic value? If the mystic cannot interpret his experience theologically without talking nonsense, it is then better for him not to attempt theology or metaphysics at all, lest he bring his experience itself into needless disrepute.

An approach of this kind would have strong sympathy with the agnostic elements of early Buddhism. Buddha taught the path to nirvāa but turned away any question about deities or the nature of a life hereafter. His emphasis was upon the moral quality of a life and upon attitudes toward life, death, suffering, and release from suffering. Mystical experience was attained in the course of a personal, practical discipline. It was understood as the culmination of such a discipline and given only the minimal theoretical interpretation. The lack of speculation did not, however, make the mystical experience unavailable to one who followed the Buddha's prescription for attaining it.

To insist that mysticism is possible without interpretation has the merit of avoiding unnecessary intellectual offense; it also allows us to admit as mystical the experiences of people outside both the theistic and monistic traditions but whose testimony, at the phenomenological level, shows great affinities with the mysticism of both traditions. Nevertheless, the mystical experiences of an agnostic are surely bound to differ in important respects from those of a Christian, a Buddhist, or a Muslim. The concepts used in interpretation help to determine the mystic's expectations of future experiences and to determine his map of the mystical path and the plotting of his position upon it. They shape the actual quality of his experience itself in a most intimate way. This does not imply that, but for the interpretative concepts, no experience could occur.

It may be feared that the theologically uninterpreted experience would tend to become a mere psychological curiosity, a luxury or consolation, isolated from all other parts of the subject's life. This can happen, but need not. Mystical experience basically involves a powerful urge toward the reconciliation, unification, and harmony of all with all, a feature that can readily be integrated with a moral outlook in which primacy is given to love. "Integrated," in fact, is really too weak a term; that moral ideal may receive its fullest and most splendid development in the mystical vision, and the moral agent gains a source of energy for the pursuit of the moral life.

These reflections may show, at least, that we cannot fairly assess the importance of mystical experience solely in terms of the interpretations that may be offered of it, whether speculatively pretentious or modest. An equally relevant question is what the mystic does with his experience, that is, what place he gives it in his total personal and moral existence. Evaluations based on this issue may often be at variance with those based upon a comparison of theories. A mystic may interpret elaborately and use his mystical experience as a mere refuge from responsibility, or he may be quite at a loss for interpretation, while recognizing in his experience the center and spring of a morally dedicated life.

Other Philosophical Criticisms

Our fourth type of response to the phenomena of mysticism was that offered by the radical philosophical critic, determined to call nonsense by its name, who takes the mystic's antinomies as a reductio ad absurdum of his claims. To those logical objections philosophers have added various epistemological and psychological difficulties.

the problem of objectivity

The mystic (and we are no longer thinking of the agnostic mystic) normally claims that his experience is not only a way of being inwardly, subjectively moved, but also that it discloses the nature of reality, that it is a cognitive, objective experience. To support this he may appeal to the impressive convergences of testimony on fundamentals among mystics of different periods and parts of the world. The critic may contest this. In reports upon perceptual illusions, for instance, even unanimity does not remove their illusoriness.

That the experiences are disclosures about the entire universe in its ultimate nature may be an almost irresistible conclusion for the mystic. Nonetheless, it must involve interpretation of a demonstrably fallible kind. To feel that the experience is revelatory is one thing; to judge confidently that it is so is quite another. A dream under nitrous oxide may strike the dreamer with the force of a satanic revelation, but on awakening and correlating the nightmare with the shock of tooth extraction, he may have little temptation to judge the experience as a genuine disclosure. The feeling of revealedness can attach itself with equal intensity to incompatible contents.

W. T. Stace has argued that mystical experience is neither objective nor subjective but that it transcends this distinction and is best classified as transsubjective. To be objective, an experience must be orderly and law governed; the criteria of subjective experience are disorderliness and incoherence. Mystical experience fits neither category. It is an experience of unity, untouched by plurality; and without plurality there can be neither order nor disorder.

This is an ingenious treatment, but it seems open to criticism at least on two points. First, the criterion of objectivity may be questioned. We may be quite properly convinced that certain phenomena are objective before we have assured ourselves of their orderliness, and they may indeed remain anomalous. The subjective events of dreams and fantasies are not disorderly, although the laws governing dreams are very different from those governing events in the public world. Second, we may wish to deny that mystical experience is, in fact, experience of a totally undifferentiated unity. There is, no doubt, a stage in which the mystic not only apprehends the world of plurality as issuing from a single divine source but sees that source and the world as a unity. Mystical experiences, however, cannot usefully be restricted to this one type. Perception of multiplicity does play a role, even if it is a subordinate one, in many other types. This is obviously so with extrovertive mystical experience in general, which is an experience not simply of oneness but of oneness in multiplicity. It is also apparent in the statement from Sri Aurobindo that "those who have possessed the calm within can perceive always welling out from its silence the perennial supply of the energies which work in the universe" (The Life Divine, 1949, p. 28). The most favorable verdict we can pass upon claims to objectivity is "not proven."

epistemological problems

When we ask more particularly what sort of apprehension, what modes of knowing are involved in mysticism, the answers swell our fund of paradoxes. If one mystic claims to perceive the cosmic energies welling forth from the One, another denies that anything like perception takes place. St. John of the Cross speaks of a "supernatural knowledge and light" that is so completely "detached and removed from all intelligible forms, which are objects of the understanding, that it is neither perceived nor observed" (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Vol. I, p. 123). Nor is mystical insight a purely intellectual act, for "the higher and more sublime the Divine light, the darker is it to our understanding." Union with God "transcends all knowledge." The difficulty is increased by the doctrine that in mystical experience the subject-object distinction breaks down, and with it, naturally enough, go all our thought models for cognitive activities. Faced with the risk of a complete failure in communication, the mystic usually resorts to a characteristic complex use of language. This works in part by negations ("not ordinary perception," "not simply emotion") and in part by descriptions of his religious situation as he interprets it in metaphysical and theological terms, enhanced with poetical imagery; God now dwells in him, or has "absorbed" him "in the embrace and abyss of His sweetness." It is easy to see why the mystic resorts to these forms of discourse and also why they offer little comfort to the epistemologist. For the interpretations assume precisely what is at issue: that mystical experiences are objective and reliably cognitive in nature.

Some critics maintain that the mystic's claim to "know" must at least be suspected of being spurious. When such expressions as "objectivity," "discovery," and "vision" are used in senses so radically far from normal and applied with obscure and idiosyncratic criteria, it is legitimate to ask whether some quite different (and noncognitive) thought model might give a more intelligible clue to what is being described.

For example, it is sometimes suggested that the mystic's language might be best understood not as a description of reality but as the expression of a state of mind. Certainly, some of the mystic's language is clearly emotive, and even when it seems to describe his "situation," as we have been using the word, this may still be an indirect expression of his state of mind. Instead of saying, "I have an oppressive, worried feeling," one may say, "I feel as if there were something terribly wrong." Instead of "I feel uneasy, insecure," he may say, "There is no sure footing; everything and everybody is working against me." Instead of "I have a feeling of unreality," he may say, "I am not real anymore." The use of such examples does not imply that the mystic is psychotic. Some psychotic experiences are mystical experiences, but it hardly follows that all mysticism is psychosis. The critic could confine himself to pointing out this disturbing parallel in the use of language: Both mystics and psychotics use situation-descriptive language for what, in the latter case at any rate, is a serious misperception of one's situation, a projection of inner disturbances upon the outer world. Furthermore, the projection occurs, partly at least, because the disturbances are not understood for what they are, and there is a failure of insight.

In the mystic's defense, it must be pointed out that to analyze his experience as a state of mind is not necessarily to discredit it. States of mind can beand normally areelicited by objective states of affairs, properly interpreted. People do, on occasion, fall victim to real persecution; their fears and anxieties can be very well founded.

But decisiveness, either in criticism or defense, is once more not to be had. Of course one's fears can be well-founded, but a person who says he does not really exist any more must be deluded. Significantly, as soon as such remarks verge on the paradoxical, we cease to take them at their face value and treat them as certain signs of disorder.

content and quality of mystical experience

We have been considering some epistemological and linguistic problems set by mysticism and some ways in which a philosophical critic can assault, although probably not overthrow, the mystic's claims. Of the central mystical experience, characterized by loss of individuality and dissolution in a limitless divine totality, little or nothing has been said from a philosophical or psychological viewpoint. How far could a naturalistic account of mystical experience cope with these central features? Or could justice be done to them only in a thoroughgoing mystical philosophy, reared upon the paradoxes themselves? Here a suggestion or two must suffice.

In the first place, the mystical experience is a vision of the world that is free, to a very unusual extent, from the interposition of concepts. Normal perception is closely linked to practical projects; we see the world in terms of our needs and desires and our intentions to manipulate it in various ways. Aesthetic experience provides a sharp contrast. One may succeed briefly in contemplating a pastoral landscape not in terms of land utilization or of the practical problems of traveling across it, but simply as colors, shapes, or volumes. Seen in this way, the landscape can be excitingly and startlingly different from its everyday utilitarian appearance. Mystical experience is even more disturbingly strange because it suspends the application of still more basic concepts and categories. "As long as a man has time and place and number and quantity and multiplicity, he is on the wrong track and God is far from him" (Meister Eckhart, Sermons, p. 202).

When concepts are withdrawn and fundamental distinctions obliterated, it is understandable that our ordinary sense of the limits and boundaries between thing and thing, person and person, should also temporarily disappear. In this we may have an important clue to the mystic's claims about the overcoming of finite individuality, the cessation of the subject-object relation, and mergings and meltings into the infinite. Because our normal sense of our powers and their limits is fostered by the utilitarian and practical view of the world, when that view is suppressed, there can come the sense of exhilarating expansion or liberation that is often described in the mystical literature.

Similarly, if the practical orientation is suspended and, with it, the related conceptual framework of normal experience, we may lose awareness of the passage of time. We are not demarcating event from event in the normal time-articulating manner. In introvertive mystical experience the awareness of space is also obliterated, for there is a still more thoroughgoing withdrawal from perception and even from sensation. The intensity and strangeness of mystical experience reinforce the effect of timelessness; the experience is dramatically discontinuous with the flow of events before and after and hence is felt as not belonging to it.

The mystic himself can afford to be sympathetic to many such naturalistic explanations. He can refuse to admit that they discredit his experience. They are simply (he will say "necessarily") incomplete, for they cannot account for the qualitatively unique tone of mystical feeling, and they do not disprove his claim that the object of mystical vision itself must elude the categories of naturalistic philosophy.

Mysticism can be upgraded or downgraded with bewildering ease through the choice of a metaphor or a simile; its paradoxes are unutterable truths or blatant contradictions; its clearest affinities are with trustworthy modes of knowing or with psychotic, delusory states of mind; of all human experience it is the most valuable or it is a psychological curiosity, fashioned by the unconscious from infantile materials. The excesses of these opposite poles are avoided in our remarks about an "agnostic" or "noninterpreting" mysticism, although this is perhaps more of a practical compromise than the germ of a full-fledged theory. It tries at least to stress the potential human importance of mystical experiencewhen yoked to moral visionand it expresses the wishful thought that the paradoxes of mystical interpretation should not be altogether allowed to mask that importance.

Perhaps it is more advisable to reflect on the meaning of ineffability claims made by mystics within their contexts, and the complex ways of interaction between mystical experiences and mystical traditions (Katz 1992).

The Debate Over Theistic Mysticism

How we should classify different types of mysticism continues to be controversial. Some scholars do not regard theistic mysticism as a separate type. They argue that all mystical experiences have basically the same phenomenological contentthe pure consciousness. Theistic mysticism is just the imposition of theistic interpretation on this core mystical experience.

However, R. C. Zaehner, William Wainwright, Stephen Payne, and Nelson Pike vigorously defend the distinctiveness of theistic mysticism. They appeal to the phenomenological data of Christian mysticism: God and the soul are said to be close, or in mutual embrace. The "language is radically dualistic" (Pike 1992, p. 108). Furthermore, the same mystic sometimes offers a theistic description and sometimes a monistic description. They seem to reflect differences in the content of the experiences. Moreover, the phenomenon of "spiritual sensations" can hardly be explained as the imposition of the Christian tradition.

Pike also argues that even if the theistic mystic may experience a monistic interval, the meaning of this experience should be determined with respect to the phenomenological context, which is a series of dualistic experiences of God. So it is legitimate to think that during a "monistic" interval, the spirit is simply "deluded by love into not noticing the difference between itself and God" (p. 156).

Drug-Induced Mysticism

Mysticism can be induced by drugs. This kind of chemical mysticism has been made popular by Aldous Huxley, and confirmed by some empirical studies (Tisdale 1980, chap. 15). However, its philosophical significance is unclear. Some regard the drug-induced alternative states of consciousness as gateways to extra-mundane reality. Others think that chemical mysticism demonstrates that reductive explanations of mysticism are available. Both interpretations can be resisted. On the one hand, the skeptics argue that we cannot distinguish alternative states of consciousness from hallucinations.

On the other hand, some scholars contend that it has not been really established that drugs are sufficient to produce genuine mystical experiences. The experimental evidence only suggests that it can raise the likelihood and enhance the intensity of the experiences (Davis 1989, p. 220; Heaney 1973, p. 116; Vergote 1997, pp. 197ff). Even if drugs are causally sufficient to produce mystical experiences, it does not follow that they are unveridical. God may have laid down some psychophysical laws to the effect that whenever certain brain states are produced, a certain perception of the divine would be produced. There is no reason why those brain states cannot be caused by taking drugs. It has been argued that as long as the whole process is set up and upheld by God, such perception of God should be counted as veridical.

In any case, even if drug-induced mystical experiences are unveridical, it does not follow that non-drug-induced mystical experiences are also unveridical. What is shown is that on the experiential level, mystical experience can be faked. This is neither surprising nor uniquely true of mystical experience. Sense experiences can also be faked.

Neural Sciences and Mysticism

Eugene d'Aquili, Andrew Newberg, and Vince Rause (2001) have proposed a neurophysiological theory of mysticism. They explain mystical states as the effect of "deafferentation"the cutting off of neural input into various structures of the nervous system. As a result, an experience of "absolute unitary being" occurs. In similar ways, the theory proposes explanations of a continuum of mystical experiences, both theistic and non-theistic.

The theory of d'Aquili and Newberg is by no means proven at this stage. Moreover, they point out that " tracing spiritual experience to neurological behavior does not disprove its realness both spiritual experiences and experiences of a more ordinary material nature are made real to the mind in the very same waythrough the processing powers of the brain and the cognitive functions of the mind" (Newberg, d'Aquili, and Rause 2001, p. 37).

They also ask, " Why should the human brain, which evolved for the very pragmatic purpose of helping us survive, possess such an apparently impractical talent?" (Newberg, d'Aquili, and Rause 2001, p. 123). They in fact tend to think their biology of transcendence is congenial to religion. The neurophysiological theory by itself does not disprove the mystical experiences, just as psychophysical laws governing sense experiences would not disprove those experiences (Jerome Gellman 2001, p. 99). Of course, there are deep questions about naturalistic explanations of mysticism that deserve further exploration (Wainwright 1973; Yandell 1993, chaps. 67).

See also Agnosticism; Aurobindo Ghose; Being; Buddhism; Eckhart, Meister; Islamic Philosophy; John of the Cross, St.; Logical Paradoxes; Mysticism, History of; Mysticism: The Indian Tradition; Nirvāa; Otto, Rudolf; Pantheism; Pseudo-Dionysius; Religious Experience, Argument for the Existence of God; Religious Language; Śankara; Stace, Walter Terence.


primary sources

Boehme, Jakob. Works, 4 vols. London, 17641781. An English translation.

Eckhart, Meister. Selected Treatises and Sermons. Translated by J. M. Clark and J. V. Skinner. London: Faber and Faber, 1958.

John of the Cross, St. The Ascent of Mount Carmel. London, 1943.

Progoff, Ira, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. New York: Julian Press, 1957. An anonymous fourteenth-century treatise on contemplative prayer.

Ruysbroeck, Jan van. The Chastising of God's Children. Edited by J. Bazire and E. Colledge. Oxford, 1957.

Underhill, Evelyn, ed. The Cloud of Unknowing. London, 1912. Contains introduction.

general studies

Butler, C. Western Mysticism. London: Constable, 1922.

Hügel, F. von. Eternal Life. Edinburgh: Clark, 1912.

Hügel, F. von. The Mystical Element of Religion. London: Dent, 1908.

Inge, W. R. Christian Mysticism. London: Methuen, 1899.

Inge, W. R. The Philosophy of Plotinus, 2 vols. London: Longman, 1918.

Otto, R. Das Heilige. Breslau: Trewendt and Granier, 1917. Translated by J. W. Harvey as The Idea of the Holy. London: Oxford University Press, 1923.

Otto, R. Mysticism East and West. Translated by B. L. Bracey and R. C. Payne. New York: Macmillan, 1932.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. London: Methuen, 1911. Contains a substantial bibliography.

psychology of mysticism

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. London: Longman, 1902. Lectures XVIXVII.

Leuba, J. H. The Psychology of Religious Mysticism. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1925.

accounts of mysticism

Smart, Ninian. Reasons and Faiths. London: Routledge and Paul, 1958. Particularly valuable for its discussions of various non-Christian as well as Christian forms of mystical and numinous religion.

Stace, W. T. Mysticism and Philosophy. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960.

Zaehner, R. C. Mysticism Sacred and Profane. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957.

philosophical discussions

Glasgow, W. D. "Knowledge of God." Philosophy 32 (1957): 229ff.

Horsburgh, H. J. N. "The Claims of Religious Experience." Australasian Journal of Philosophy 35 (1957): 186ff.

Kennick, W. E. Review of Stace's Mysticism and Philosophy. Philosophical Review 71 (1962): 387390.

Martin, C. B. Religious Belief. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959.

Ronald W. Hepburn (1967)

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