Typologies Of Religious Experience

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One of the most important early typologies of religious experience is Rudolf Otto's. Otto identifies the religious a priori with numinous feeling. Numinous feeling is woven of five strands. The relation between them is indicated by the following diagram:

The experience involves 'blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, an amazement absolute' (Otto 1958:26). Its apparent object is wholly other, a mystery that is in principle opaque to understanding. Religious dread is distinct from ordinary fear. It is more like a fear of ghosts or a dread of haunted places, feelings which make our flesh creep and our blood run cold. One experiences a sense of 'impotence and general nothingness as against overpowering might', of being 'dust and ashes as against majesty' (ibid.: 21).

The experience's apparent object seems overwhelmingly alive and urgent, a quality indicated by terms suggesting 'vitality, passion,...will, force,, activity, impetus' (ibid.: 23). But the mysterium tremendum is only an aspect of the numinous. It is also fascinating, compelling, alluring, enchanting—a value so great and splendid that all other values seem insignificant in comparison.

As religious experience develops, numinous experience is 'schematized' by rational concepts to yield the 'complex concept of the Holy'. Mystical experience, on the other hand, is a form of numinous experience which 'shows a preponderance of its non-rational elements' (Otto 1958:85n). Mysticism East and West (1957) distinguishes two types—the 'mysticism of introspection' and the 'mysticism of unifying vision'. In the first, the mystic withdraws from outward things and turns inward, sinking deep into the self in an attempt to find the holy power or depth or ground which he or she believes lies at the centre or summit of his or her soul. This holy power may be identified with the mystic's true self or with the world-ground. The second sort of mystic turns outward. The mysticism of unifying vision has three stages. In the first, the mystic perceives nature's unity. Natural phenomena are identified with each other and the mystic. They become 'transparent, luminous, visionary', and time stands still (Otto 1957:46). The object of experience in the first stage is nature but a nature transfigured, timeless, and mysteriously one. The object in the second stage is not only nature but a power behind it which supports it and manifests itself through it ('the one behind the many'). In the third stage, nature drops away and the mystic experiences the 'one apart from the many'—Samkara's Brahman without attributes or Eckhart's "silent void of the Godhead" into which difference or multiplicity never entered' (ibid.: 52).

Numinous and mystical experiences, however, seem phenomenologically distinct. The former tend to be I-thou experiences in which the subject is confronted by a transcendent 'will' or 'emotional temper' which thrusts itself into his or her own. The latter are unitive experiences in which the sense of distance or otherness is largely overcome, and they are often described in impersonal or transpersonal terms (see Smart 1960). Why did Otto fail to see this? There are similarities between the experiences. The objects of both experiences 'fascinate' the beholder. The mystical object, too, is incomprehensible and therefore a mystery. Furthermore, the mystic experiences a loss of self and is hence 'nothing' before the One. But the similarities seem insufficient to justify assimilating them. Philip Almond suggests that Otto's principal reason for doing so is his commitment to Fries's metaphysics which postulates a religious a priori underlying empirical religious phenomena. Otto identifies Fries's Ahnung with numinous feeling. This commitment prevents him from appreciating the 'phenomenological disparities' between the two experiences (Almond 1982:107-17).

The most influential typology that has appeared in recent decades is Walter Stace's. Mystical consciousness is characterized by a 'sense of objectivity or reality', a 'feeling of blessedness, joy, happiness, satisfaction, etc.', and a sense 'that what is apprehended is holy, or sacred, or divine'. It is also characterized by parodoxicality, and alleged ineffability. The mystic offers descriptions of his experience which are contradictory if taken literally, and claims that it cannot adequately be put into words (Stace 1960:79). Mystical consciousness assumes two forms. The extrovertive mystic perceives all things as one. Ordinary objects appear to be identical with each other and/or rooted in some unity which lies behind them. The world is also experienced as alive or conscious, or as rooted in life and consciousness. It is a 'living presence'. The mind of the introvertive mystic, on the other hand, is empty of ordinary contents. Awareness of the phenomenal world vanishes and space and time are no longer experienced. Ordinary mental activity is suspended and the mystic's soul is stripped of abstract concepts and sensuous images. Having purified his or her consciousness, the introvertive mystic becomes aware of a One with which he or she experiences union or identity. (Stace's introvertive mysticism appears to be identical with what others have called 'pure consciousness'—a state in which the mystic is conscious but conscious of nothing.)

While Stace's typology has been widely influential, it oversimplifies and thereby distorts the richness and variety of spiritual experience. Two examples will make this clear. Buddhists cultivate an experience in which spatio-temporal reality is perceived as 'empty'—a conceptually unstructured flow of 'dharmas' (momentary physical or psychological events or states that resist further analysis). The object of the Buddhist's experience is not some permanent substance or force underlying things. It is the process of becoming itself—but viewed without attachment and without attempting to conceptualize it. This is not a form of introvertive mystical consciousness, for the 'object' of the mystic's experience is the phenomenal world. But neither is the experience extrovertive in Stace's sense. Viewing things as a conceptually unstructured flow, and without attachment, appears to be phenomenologically distinct from perceiving their identity or seeing them as rooted in some larger life or unity. (For similar reasons, Otto's typology cannot handle this experience.)

The major difficulty with Stace's account, however, is its failure to mention love. This is extraordinary in view of the central role played by love in the accounts of both Eastern and Western theistic mystics. R.C.Zaehner hardly overstates the case when he concludes that Stace's 'failure to mention love can only be due to an obvious anti-Christian [or anti-theistic] bias reinforced by a massive ignorance of the whole tradition of love-mysticism within Hinduism itself (Zaehner 1957:200). The experiences that interest Stace are primarily knowledge experiences. Theistic mystical experiences, on the other hand, are primarily love experiences, and love experiences and knowledge experiences are phenomenologically distinct (see Dhavamony 1971).

Zaehner attempts to rectify this mistake. Nature mysticism (cosmic consciousness) and monistic (or soul) mysticism are distinguished from theistic mysticism. The first two are roughly identical with Stace's extrovertive and introvertive mysticism. But theistic mysticism cannot be accommodated within Stace's categories. It does involve introversion. The theistic mystic's mind empties itself of precepts, images, and all but a few of the most general and abstract concepts (such as 'being', 'presence', or 'love'). But unlike monistic experiences, theistic experiences have an object or content which is distinct from the self. This object, however, is not identical with a part of the space— time world or with the space—time world as a whole. The experience's character or tone is indicated by the fact that these mystics employ erotic imagery to describe the felt quality of their relation to its object. Bernard, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross furnish obvious examples.

Zaehner is also guilty of oversimplification. The uniqueness of Buddhist experience is ignored (Zaehner identifies it with cosmic consciousness), and theistic mysticism itself is more variegated than he recognizes. Zaehner focuses on introvertive modes of consciousness which are experienced as states of mutual love, noetic experiences in which the mystic not only loves but has an 'experimental perception' of the beloved's love for the mystic. But other theistic and quasi-theistic experiences seem different. For example, there is an introvertive state in which theistic mystics direct their will and affections towards God without experiencing his presence. In another, God is not experimentally perceived but his presence is inferred from the soul's sense of well-being, its advances in virtue, sensations of 'sweetness', and feelings of love (see Martin 1959:123-4). Orthodox mystics cultivate experiences in which the soul is invaded and permeated with a light which is identified with the divine energies. The experience is achieved by introversion but involves purified senses as well as a purified intellect (although the blind can have it). Other introvertive theistic experiences appear to have a great deal of conceptual content and to be primarily knowledge rather than love experiences. Teresa's intellectual vision of the Trinity is an example. Finally, the relation between theistic mystical experiences and monistic experiences may be closer than Zaehner is prepared to admit. There are introvertive experiences which culminate in a loss of self but seem distinct from pure consciousness. Plotinus and possibly Tauler provide examples. Both are metaphysical dualists, and both construe the object of their quest as transpersonal (though not impersonal like Nirvana). Both regard eros (the soul's love of God) as a necessary means to union and neither clearly speaks of experiencing God's love of the soul. (Although Tauler's language is ambiguous, and he does suggest that God's life is a life of love.) These states differ from Zaehner's theistic mystical experiences because they are not experiences of mutual love. But the fact that love is their prelude, and that they are more aptly described as experiences of an object with no subject than as experiences of a subject with no object, suggest that they are also distinct from pure consciousness. Again, Nelson Pike has convincingly argued that experiences of mutual love sometimes culminate in experiences of identity ('union without distinction'). This state

'is not a distinct kind of mystical experience. It is, rather, the climax moment.of two distinct mystical states, namely, Full Union and Rapture (or ecstasy).' It is 'an interval in a more comprehensive experience which. occurs very rarely and then only for an instant.' The mystic temporarily loses the sense of God as 'not me' and in doing so loses his or her sense of self (Pike 1992:38, 40). Pike thinks that 'union without distinction' is Stace's introvertive mysticism. This is doubtful. The moment in question is experienced as the temporary culmination or climax of an experience of intense mutual love. Its phenomenological ancestry is distinctive and seems to colour the experience itself. Thus Ruysbroeck characterizes the unity from which one cannot distinguish oneself as 'an eternal fire of love' and describes union as being 'burnt up in love' (Ruysbroeck 1951:186).

The problematic character of these typologies raises important methodological questions. The typologist has to rely on texts and personal interviews. How is one to distinguish description from interpretation? And if one cannot, how is one to determine the phenomenological features of the experiences being investigated? Ninian Smart points out that Zaehner thinks that Buddhists, Yogins, and Advaitins are all monistic mystics. Nevertheless, they interpret their experiences differently. The Buddhist claims that 'there are no eternal selves, but only impermanent' empirical egos which 'go out like a flame' when they pass into Nirvana (Smart 1965:83). Yoga thinks that a plurality of eternal selves exist. Each can free his or her own eternal self from its entanglement in nature and thus achieve liberation (moksa). Advaita maintains that there is only one eternal self (the Atman) which is identical with the ground of being (the Brahman). Liberation consists in recognizing one's identity with the Atman-Brahman.

If Zaehner is correct, it is a mistake to argue from the differences between these interpretations to differences in the experiences which are being interpreted. Is it any less of a mistake to argue (as Zaehner does) that since theistic and monistic mystics offer different accounts of their experiences, their experiences differ? The question is critical because differences between theistic and Advaitin accounts seem no greater than those between Advaitin and Buddhist accounts. We are not hopelessly at sea. It seems reasonable to privilege first-person accounts, to be more suspicious of descriptions which employ doctrinal concepts than of those which do not, to pay attention to analogies with more familiar experiences (if mystical experience A is more like ordinary experience x than ordinary experience y and if mystical experience B is more like ordinary experience y than ordinary experience x, then A and B are probably distinct), and so on. But the criteria are loose and agreement on their correct application is unlikely.

In the face of these difficulties, a number of scholars have recently suggested that cross-cultural typologies of religious experience are impossible. The most influential spokesman for this view is Steven Katz. Katz believes there are no 'pure' or 'unmediated' experiences. All experience is shaped by the attitudes, expectations, beliefs, and intentions we bring to it. Since these vary from one religious tradition to another, mystical experience too varies. There are as many types of mystical experience as there are traditions. A cross-cultural typology of mystical experience is therefore impossible. Katz's thesis, then, is that a mystic's experience is largely constructed by the concepts, beliefs, attitudes, etc., which the mystic brings to it. Since the mystics' traditions are significantly different, so too are their experiences.

How credible is this? Two questions should be distinguished: 'Is a cross— cultural typology possible' and 'Are mystical experiences largely constructed?' These questions are independent. Even if mystical consciousness is constructed, experiences from different traditions may be significantly similar. Katz points out that there are not only great differences between the experiences of (e.g.) Christian and Buddhist mystics, there are also significant differences between the theistic mysticism of the Bhagavad-Gita, Ramanuja, Teresa, Isaac Luria, and al-Hallaj, and between the monism of Samkara, Spinoza, and Eckhart. This is true but inconclusive. Things significantly different in some respects can be significantly similar in others, and the similarities may justify classifying them as things of the same kind. Although rabbits, bass, grasshoppers, whales, and butterflies are very different, the animal kingdom can be usefully divided into relatively few kinds (mammals, fish, insects, etc.). Similarly here. Whatever their differences, the religious experiences of Christians and Vaisnavas are more like each other than either are like the experiences of Yogins, Advaitins, and Jains, and the experiences of the latter resemble each other more than they resemble either Christian or Vaisnava experiences or Buddhist experiences. Even if religious experiences are constructed, significant cross-cultural typologies are still possible.

But are mystical experiences largely constructed? There are reasons for thinking that at least some of them are not. For one thing, it is difficult to see how the experience of pure consciousness could be constructed. As Anthony Perovich points out, constructivism can be understood in two ways. On one interpretation, the mind is presented with a conceptually unstructured manifold or continuum which it then unifies or divides by imposing concepts. Unification results in a 'synthesized manifold'. Division 'introduce[s] difference, multiplicity, and form rather than [does] away with them' (Perovich 1990:242). In either case, the constructed experience involves multiplicity. In the experience of pure consciousness, on the other hand, distinctions disappear.

On the second interpretation, constructivism denies that there is a mystical 'given' which is then structured by consciousness: the mind does not impose form on something immediately presented to it but produces its objects de novo. This form of constructivism fares no better than the first, however, since pure consciousness has no objects.

Constructivism is also disconfirmed by some Buddhist experiences. The experience of emptiness is not obtained by imposing concepts on the flow of sensations but by deconditioning. Meditation involves a progressive deconstruction of ordinary perception and thinking (including Buddhist thinking) until a stage is reached in which the mind no longer imposes its categories on what is immediately presented to it.

Nor is it clear that mystical or numinous experiences which have objects are primarily structured by the religious, rather than non-religious, concepts which the mystic brings to them. The fact that Christian mystics typically use Christian concepts to describe their experiences is not important if there are non-theological descriptions which they would find acceptable. (For example, 'I had a non-sensory experience in which I seemed to merge with an overwhelming, loving, reality.') It should also be noted that the general and abstract concepts which sometimes inform theistic mystical consciousness ('being', 'reality', 'presence', 'love', etc.) are part of our ordinary conceptual equipment. (Specifically Christian experiences like Teresa's intellectual vision of the Trinity are comparatively rare in Christian mysticism.) It is not clear, then, than these experiences are primarily structured by peculiarly religious concepts. If they are not, it is not obvious that they are artifacts of the mystic's religious tradition.

Constructivism also has difficulty accounting for novelty. As Robert Forman points out, 'it is not unusual to hear of an untrained or uninitiated neophyte who has a mystical experience without any deep preconditioning' (Forman 1990:20). Richard Bucke and Alfred Tennyson are familiar examples. The course of an adept's experience is also sometimes unexpected.

St. Teresa was at first quite astonished by her apprehension of God's presence in all things, and in the presence of the Trinity in her soul, since she had not previously known that such experiences were possible...St. John of the Cross likewise encountered some difficulty in trying to fit certain comtemplative states into the categories of the scholastic theology of the day, [and said] that pious souls often tend to resist new and deeper mystical communications because they do not understand and had not anticipated them.

(Payne 1990:149)

Although the uninitiated neophyte's experiences could be the product of religious beliefs and concepts the neophyte had unthinkingly absorbed from his or her environment, and the adept's unanticipated experiences could be determined by the religious beliefs, intentions, and attitudes he or she holds, 'the theory starts to sound ad hoc' (Forman 1990:20).

Of course if all human experience is constructed, then so is mystical experience. But why think that it is? Few contemporary philosophers believe that the thesis can 'be established a priori. Consequently, it must be an empirical claim' (Perovich 1990:245). Why accept it in the face of apparent counter-examples like pure consciousness? That ordinary human experience is constructed does not entail that experiences which the soul obtains when ordinary mental activities are suspended also are.

Nor is it clear that religious experiences which have objects are artifacts of their traditions. The empirical evidence for this thesis consists in correlations between the sorts of experience the mystic has and distinctive features of his or her tradition. Buddhists do not have intellectual visions of the Trinity or Christ's presence, and Christians do not have visions of celestial Buddhas or experience the emptiness of things. These correlations, however, prove little. They are consistent with the claim that the beliefs, attitudes, intentions, and expectations which constitute (e.g.) theistic traditions produce theistic experiences. They are equally consistent with the claim that the latter determines the former. The second and more radical form of constructivism places all the explanatory weight on the interpretative systems which the subject brings to his or her experience. But what accounts, then, for the interpretative systems themselves? It may be more illuminating to suppose that religion grows out of real or apparent divine disclosures than to suppose that these disclosures are produced by religion (its beliefs, practices, institutions, and so on) for the latter leaves religion inadequately accounted for. None of the alternative explanations (priestcraft, wish-fulfilment, or their more sophisticated variants) seem as plausible as the hypothesis that among religion's principal causes are experiences which, while sometimes conceptually structured, are not specifically Christian, or Buddhist, or Muslim although they may be implicitly theistic, pantheistic, or monistic in the sense that they are more naturally interpreted in one of these ways than another. The typologies of Otto, Stace, and Zaehner are oversimplified but the enterprise they were engaged in has an explanatory power which radical constructivism lacks.

In a series of recent articles, Grace Jantzen has argued that modern philosophical discussions of mysticism are skewed by their obsession with visions, trances, raptures and other extraordinary experiences, and by their emphasis on these experience's veridicality (or lack of it). While experiences of this kind do occur in the life of mystics, they should not be abstracted from their context. Religious experience in the broad sense ('a lifetime of "being towards God" ') is the heart of a life of prayer. 'Religious experience in the narrow sense of visions and ecstasies' is not (Jantzen 1989:301-2). Jantzen's caution is useful. The experiences we have been discussing can only be fully understood in the context of the spiritual life to which they belong, and their value is a function of the help they provide in achieving the goal of the spiritual path which the contemplative is pursuing. Our estimation of the degree of cross-cultural similarity between different mystical traditions will also be affected by whether we focus on religious experience in the narrow or broad sense. If we focus on the first, we find much similarity. The experience of pure consciousness, for example, appears to occur in a number of traditions and so does the experience which some Christian mystics call 'marriage'. If we focus on the mystic's identification of his or her experience's object, on his or her aims and methods, or on other features of the spiritual paths in which these experiences are embedded, the differences are more striking. For example,

Yoga identifies the object with the mystic's purusa—one of a plurality of pure selves. According to Advaita Vedanta, the object of mystical experience is the Atman-Brahman—the unique ground of both world and self. Yoga's aim is isolation. The adept attempts to free his or her purusa from its entanglement in nature (prakritf) so that it may exist in splendid solitude. Advaita aims at the intuitive and existential appropriation of the fact that one is the Atman-Brahman. Patanjali's yoga (which involves special postures, breathing exercises, the withdrawal of the senses from sense objects, concentration upon an object of meditation, etc.) provides the means to isolation. The Advaitin believes he or she can achieve his or her aim by jnana-yoga— a study of, and meditation upon, scripture. Thus while the experiences of isolation and identity are arguably the same (viz. pure consciousness), the objects, aims, and methods of the two spiritual paths are significantly different. Again, there are striking similarities between Christian and Vaisnava theology, experiences (in the narrow sense), and values. But the centrality of the Incarnation in some Christian mysticism (e.g., that of Father Berulle) is uniquely Christian and it is tendentious to argue that it is not essential.

Whether these considerations vitiate modern philosophy's approach to mystical phenomena, however, is more doubtful. In the first place, the extraordinary experiences that interest Otto, Stace, and Zaehner are more significant features of the spiritual path than Jantzen's remarks suggest, for they are typically regarded as anticipations or foretastes of its goal. Thus, the experience of cessation (which may be pure consciousness but is more likely the temporary extinction of consciousness) is sometimes regarded as 'nirvana in life'. Again, spiritual marriage is an anticipation of the eternal participation in God's own life which the saints enjoy in heaven—a divine life in which God is known and loved as he knows and loves himself. Furthermore, ordinary religious experience is parasitic on the experience of the saints, prophets, and teachers who are the tradition's exemplars and principal authors. Visions, ecstasies, and other 'transcendent experiences' are important features of these figures' lives. If they are delusive, the value of the lives is called in question. Finally, if apparent cognitions of the divine really are one of religion's root causes, then it is natural to focus on the extraordinary experiences in which the noetic or perception-like quality is particularly striking. The interest in cross-cultural typologies which focus on experiences in the narrow sense, and a concern with these experiences' validity, is not just misguided.

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