The Nature of Mystical Experience

In my last post I articulated a conception of theism which is compatible with a modest sort of metaphysical naturalism.  I would now like to add that this conception which I think to be plausible is essentially a pluralist conception.  I am generally in agreement with John Hicks when he says, “the different religious traditions, with their complex internal differentiations, have developed to meet the needs of the range of mentalities expressed in the different human cultures.”  On this metaphysically modest view, it is not necessary to defend the particular doctrines of the various religious traditions as truth claims about the objective world, but rather see provisional commitment to these claims as a culturally-contingent way of accessing a fundamental truth which lies beyond these contingencies.

But what reason do we have to think that anything does lie beyond these contingencies?  To me, it seems that the most persuasive reason to think that all of these religious traditions do get at something real beyond their contingent differences is that practitioners of the various religious traditions directly experience this thing.  The sorts of experiences I’m talking about here, at least in the paradigm cases, are mystical experiences.  Mystical experience is a part of nearly all religious traditions, and, among those who report mystical experiences, we see interesting similarities.

Explaining what these sorts of experiences are like is a difficult task.  A mystical experience is the sort of thing that leaves one speechless.  The more one tries to get a grip on it, the more it slips right through ones fingertips.  This property of ineffability is often part of how these experiences are characterized, and it is reflected in theology inspired by these experiences.   In much of Christian theology, God is ineffable, ungraspable, beyond words.  Famously, in Exodus 3:14, when Moses asks for God’s name, God simply responds “I am that I am.”  God, we might say, does not have an articulable essence beyond his existence.  The 5th century Christian mystic, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, argued that the words we used could only serve as pointers to God, but never truly describe God.

Of what can be drawn from these experiences, perhaps the most central characteristic is the loss of a separate self in the union with the Divine.  A sense of all-encompassing unity, a mystical union with God or the Absolute, seems to be a common core of many different religious experiences.  In Christianity, of course, it is the union of one’s soul with the Godhead.  In Hinduism, it is the realization of one’s true self as one with Brahman, the ultimate ineffable reality.  In various sects of Buddhism, it is Śūnyatā, the ultimate formless emptiness, which transcends even the categories of being and non-being, and the understanding of anātman (non-self) that accompanies it.  While the language used to characterize these mystical states varies greatly, they all share a common character of ineffable unity.

Of course, the doctrinal differences between traditions will inevitably lead to differences in how these experiences end up being characterized, and, in an important sense, will also lead to differences in the character of religious experience itself.  Steven Katz, one of the famous objectors to an “essentialist” understanding of mystical experience, thinks that this undermines the claim that the defining mystical experiences of the various traditions are all getting at the same thing.  He writes, “the Christian mystic does not experience some unidentified reality, which he then conveniently labels God, but rather has at least the partially preconfigured Christian experiences of God, or Jesus, or the like.”  This much, I believe, is clearly true.  If mystical experiences are all-encompassing, in that they make sense of one’s entire understanding of everything in a single experience, then we should certainly expect the character of the experience to reflect the way one understands the Absolute.

Still, I don’t see how Katz’s claim ought to pose a fundamental problem to an essentialist understanding of mystical experience as I’ve laid it out here.  If a common element in these religious views is a fundamental ineffability and impossibility to conceptualize the Absolute at the heart of it all, then, even if the experience is filtered through one’s religious view, it’d be a mistake to regard the character of that experience as the character of God Himself.  If that were the case, then to describe the experience would be to describe God’s true nature, something that is impossible according to the sort of theological view I endorse.  Rather than thinking of the experience as some sort of straightforward perceptual experience of seeing God, we ought to regard the experience as a coming into contact with God as being touched by him.   While having a particular religious view is a way of making this contact and integrating it into one’s life, it is not a way to capture in a final sense the Absolute with which we come into contact.

If we view mystical experience in this way, we can view the specifics of a theological system as ultimately serving a pragmatic rather than descriptive purpose.  A theological system is an instrumental means of being in touch with the Absolute, the ineffable thing at the heart of that system, rather than a final take on what God is like.  At the end of his book Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, Wittgenstein famously says, “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way:  anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them—as steps—to climb up beyond them.  (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”  Here, an entire system of understanding serves only to point to the thing that it cannot itself conceptualize, and thus it undoes itself in the very act of the pointing.  Theological systems, I believe, function in this sort of way, attempting to conceptualize that which cannot be conceptualized in the hopes with coming into contact with it.  These theological systems have been crafted over the centuries to be able to perform this profound function.  Personally, I’ve found Catholic theology a powerful means of making sense of religious experiences, and some of the most profound accounts of mystical experience have been within the Catholic theological framework.  However, the fundamental ineffability of God ought to prevent us from thinking that God, as conceived by Catholic theology or any other theology, is God in his true nature.

Now, this pluralistic picture of religious doctrine is certainly not a picture that every religious believer accepts.  Many of the traditions in question do take their particular doctrinal differences to be conflicting facts about the world in the straightforward empirical sense.  The very notion that the traditions can be unified under some sort of overarching conceptual framework, even if it is a framework that places ineffability at its center to account for these conceptual differences, is something that many religious believers would object to.  However, I think the pluralist stands on the epistemic and ethical high-ground, offering a promising picture for religious practice in the 21st century, one which involves a back-and-forth between the objective world that we all share, the scientific methodology we’ve devolved to understand this world, and the different religious practices we are engaged in.  It would be naïve to think that this back-and-forth is an easy and simple matter.  There are many doctrinal claims that will need to be reconciled the world and with the values others if this is how we ought to conceive religion, but this critical evaluative project seems to be one’s duty as a religious believer, an epistemic agent, and a human being.


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