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.

What Sort of Thing Might God Be?

This is my first post here, and I figured I’d start out with a series of posts on philosophy of religion since I’ve been meaning to do something of this sort for a while.   I’ll start with a post on the ontology of God.  That is, I’ll try to answer to the best of my ability the puzzling question, “What sort of being might God be?”

Karen Armstrong says that the insights of religion “are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.  Without such practice it is impossible to understand the truth of its doctrines.”  If she is right, then we cannot really evaluate the claim “God exists” without a deep understanding of the practices that treat this claim as being true.  But why would that be the case?  On the face of it, the belief that God exists seems roughly analogous to belief in something like the Loch Ness Monster.  If we want to know whether the Loch Ness Monster exists we don’t need to worry about the practices that people who believe in the Loch Ness Monster engage in.  We shouldn’t get hung up on the details of all the Loch Ness Monster boat tours that excited tourists go on.  What we should do is look at whatever evidence there is, see what the most probable explanations for the photos and reported sightings are, and, if we can, simply check the lake to see if it’s there or not.  Why wouldn’t the same be the case about God?

Explaining why belief in God should not be treated like belief in the Loch Ness Monster has traditionally not been too easy of a task.  The Christian existentialist, Paul Tillich, tells us that God is not simply a being among beings, but “the ground of all Being.”  In a similar vein, one of the more religiously sympathetic atheist philosophers, Kai Neilson, writes that “Coming to see that there is a God is not like coming to see that some additional being exists. It is not, as Kierkegaard paradoxically put it, like coming to see that something exists, but it is a coming to an acknowledgment of eternity.”  These sorts of theological explanations are all well and good within a theological framework, but they might be seen by skeptics as vague and evasive.  “Oh, come on,” the skeptic says, “I have no idea what that could possibly even mean!”  And while one might write off the skeptic’s protestations here as shallow and narrow-minded, I think there is a more straightforward explanation for why belief in God ought to be treated differently than belief in an ordinary thing like the Loch Ness Monster.

The Loch Ness Monster is going to exist or not regardless of whatever practices we have surrounding it.  But not all things work like this.  If my neighbor is teaching me how to play chess for the first time and he tells me “The knight goes on the inside of the rook,” this is a true statement (that is in fact where the knight goes).  However, it’s also an action of my neighbor holding-up a rule.  It’s what we might call a “norm-enforcing” practice.   Outside of norm-enforcing practices like the one he just took part in, there is no normative structure in virtue of which this claim could be possibly be true or even meaningful.  So it’s true that rooks exist and that we can make true statements about them, and yet, we cannot regard these things as existing separately from practices which treat them as existing.

Perhaps, in a way much like rooks and knights, the existence of God cannot be understood outside of our practices which treat God as existing.  This would provide a model to make sense of Armstrong’s statement that we cannot understand the truth of religious doctrines outside of practice.  But there’s an obvious problem here: the existence of rooks and knights is wholly dependent on whether there are people interested in playing game.  For any game we might want to play, we have no problem inflating out ontology to include the pieces of the game.  But we can’t inflate our ontology in the same way to accommodate the gods of Christianity, Hinduism and Greek Mythology just because people might be interested in worshiping these Gods.  The objects of religious worship are supposed to have some sort of deep and real ontological status that knights and rooks do not have.

So, at the very least, we need a stronger analogy.  Consider then the existence of persons, rational and moral agents who can be held epistemically and morally responsible for their claims and actions.  I strongly believe that persons exist.  However, they don’t exist in the attitude independent sense that the Loch Ness Monster might exist. Without any treatment of each other as persons in this sense, without holding anyone responsible for anything at all, the notion of a person would make no sense.  Like a rook or a knight, a person is a normatively governed entity, and an entity of this sort can make no sense completely outside of our norm-enforcing practices of treating others as persons.  Still, a person’s status as a person is not identical to our treatment of them as a person. We can imagine cases where we get it wrong.  For example, if someone has locked-in syndrome and we believe that they are brain-dead, and thus we do not treat them as a person. We’re missing an important and deep truth here, and yet this truth would make no sense outside of any of practices of treating each other as persons.  It is a profound fact about us, that we really are persons in this sense, and about the world, that it contains beings that really are epistemically and morally responsible.

So perhaps, rather than chess pieces, persons is a better model for thinking of religious belief.  Still, if we are to think of God, will we get a conception of God that is ontologically robust enough?  Well, that depends.  Different conceptions of gods will need different properties in order to be called that god.  The existence of a particularly anthropomorphic god such as Zeus, who intervenes with human affairs in a way quite like a human (literally throwing lightning bolts and whatnot), will be hard to defend in this this fashion.  Belief in Zeus, presumably, is more like belief in the Loch Ness Monster in that it is hard to see a way in which the very concept of Zeus would be ontologically dependent on practices committed to Zeus’s existence.

However, there is a certain conception of the Christian and Jewish God often suggested by theologians that is quite unlike Zeus and for whom this ontological picture may not be unreasonable at all.  The conception of God I have in mind is something along the lines of the Tillich’s conception, in which God is not a “being among beings” but the “ground of all Being,” Buber’s conception where he calls God the “Eternal Thou,” the intersection of all interpersonal moments which transcend our everyday relation with the world, or John Hick’s conception of God which he simply calls “The Real.”  Differences aside, it’s possible to see all of these characterizations as attempting to point at some sort of fundamentally ineffable Absolute which underlies all reality.  It is this conception of God that may be ontologically compatible with the idea that its coherence is dependent on our practices.

I think there are some good reasons to think that a God of this sort does in fact exist, but I will save articulating those reasons for a later post and focus instead on what it would mean if such a God did exist.  An interesting consequence of this sort of theological view is that it is entirely compatible with a modest version of metaphysical naturalism.  There are a few different ways we could articulate metaphysical naturalism, but for our present purposes, let’s just think of it as the claim that ultimately, natural stuff (the sort of stuff that natural scientists investigate) is causally responsible for everything else (whatever that “everything else” happens to be).  Now this will certainly come as a surprise to many theists, so let me take a moment to explain.

I don’t mean to mean to say that naturalism is necessarily the correct metaphysical view; just that naturalism and theism aren’t necessarily incompatible.  It seems plausible to think that moral facts and mental facts are causally dependent on the physical stuff of natural science (though perhaps are not reducible to them).  I’m suggesting that it might also be plausible to think about theological facts in this way. This is only theologically catastrophic if we have a particularly anthropomorphic conception of God, if we think of God like a supernatural human being that goes around meddling with the stuff of the universe.  But I think, beyond its allegorical uses, we have good reason to reject this anthropomorphic conception of God anyway, and rather think of God more in the fashion of Tillich or Buber.  Since, I don’t think a God of this latter sort is lost at all if metaphysical naturalism turns out to be true, I don’t see why we should resist it.

As I see it, the statement that God exists is ultimately a statement about us.  To explain this, it might be useful to make an analogy to ethical truths.  On the metaethical view that I hold, statements such as “Moral facts exist” ultimately boil down to statements about ourselves.  To make the claim that moral facts exist is not to say that there are that there is some set of moral facts out there in the universe that exist completely independently of us, but to say that we are the sorts of beings that are normatively bound to each other in certain ways.  Likewise, to say that God exists, on the view I’m trying to articulate, isn’t to say that there is some entity completely outside of us that just happens to exist.  Rather, it is  to say we are the sorts of beings for whom making sense of ourselves Absolutely is appropriate.

To believe in God is to take a certain stance to our situation here as beings in this world.  To say “God exists” is to say that this stance is something that makes sense for us, given the sorts of beings that we are.  Articulating exactly what it means to take this stance is a difficult task.  In large part, it seems to be something that someone must figure out for oneself, in the same way that one must figure out for oneself what it means to be a good person, or what it means to be true to oneself.  But, while this journey of understanding is one we must each take for ourselves, we can be guided by religious institutions or theology, receiving on the support from those who have undertaken this same journey.