The Christian Mystic II

In part one on mysticism, I said that as a phenomenon that is a legitimate part of the Christian experience, mysticism needs to be critically addressed. It should neither be entirely dismissed nor should all such experiences be accepted, no questions asked. We need to find the middle ground. This is easier said than done but I discovered that it is doable. It is possible for Christian mysticism to be of benefit to the Church community without the practice being hostage to wanton subjectivism. To do this we need to start at the foundation of the phenomenon, understanding what it essentially is and means so we can understand how to deal with it properly.

First of all, we need to recognize people from all cultures have mystical experiences. There is such a plethora of mystical experiences and practices that it is quite hard to have a one size fits all definition. So what can be said about it?

[1]Eminent Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne brilliant makes the argument from religious experiences for theism, offering different types and criteria for assessing them. Mysticism is a kind of religious experience. Without going into the finer points of it as a theistic argument, a mystical experience indicates that there is more to reality than what can be detected by the senses. The universality of such experiences among all human cultures tells us people do not understand reality as only something that can be empirically measured. These experiences help to point out that the numinous dimension of life does indeed exist. In the words of the late noted atheist Christopher Hitchens,

[2]“Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter.”

Mystical experiences are as such a kind of knowing. Whether these experiences are effable or ineffable they inform the mystic about the world he or she inhabits. It does not yield a scientific knowing but loosely speaking a “revelatory” kind of knowledge. This is not to say it is a passive download of information. As research has shown, cultural contexts heavily influence the content of mystical experiences. Yet these experiences by definition have to be sufficiently exceptional so as not to be categorised as a mundane everyday experience. Again, it has to indicate there is more than the individual mystic’s grasp of reality. It is at the epistemic level i.e. how we know things, where we can really get to the business of critically assessing these experiences. We can move from general talk about mystical experiences, which I have been doing so far in this post, to more specific issues concerning particular mystic events. I have only affirmed that they do happen to people but not what we or the individual mystic should do with them. Is the experience of private or public benefit, what sort of information does it convey, how do we interpret it, does it give us reliable knowledge about the world or not? These and many other questions are things we need to seriously consider, especially since these experiences could potentially offer us truth, help and direction in life. Mystical experiences are potential vehicles or media for knowing the world in an extraordinary fashion.

On account of the epistemic dimension to visions, I can apply a critical realist philosophy to them. [3]Critical realism basically says that there are things that are objectively real but my knowledge of them is mediated through my subjective experiences. Since I experience reality through a personal frame of reference, I should therefore critically examine what I know about the world. I believe this sought of epistemology is helpful in understanding mystical experiences. Even though they are private experiences they are perceived by the individual as objective reality. We shouldn’t completely dismiss them because no one else saw it or naively accept everything about it because the purveyor is sure of it. Neither should the individual who experiences them assume it is reliable since things are not always as they seem. We need to approach these phenomenon with care and wisdom, recognising both the contribution of internal and possibly external factors. To successfully operate a critical realist philosophy you have to be aware of your own ‘biases’ and presuppositions. Critical realism says that a person’s worldview is the invisible mediating grid through which they see the world. Worldviews deal with ‘ultimate things’ and as such they are crucial to how mysticism is commonly defined. (For a more thorough analysis of Wrightian critical realism go here.)

[4]Narrowly defined, “mysticism” refers to a religious experience that involves a paranormal state of consciousness in which the human subject encounters or unites with ultimate reality. (Italics mine)

Worldviews address ultimate reality and since worldview is an essential part of critical realism, it provides the philosophical tools to better understand mysticism. As for what a worldview is I have discussed in greater detail elsewhere.

What ultimate reality is, is a specific answer to the worldview question of what is there? If someone has a pagan worldview the answer is nature itself. The gods are a part of the natural order and are made from some primordial cosmic stuff. These gods and spirits are the ultimate forces controlling the natural world yet they are part of the system and so can be influenced by lesser members of the cosmic order like human beings. For instance they depend on human worshippers for housing in the form of temples built by devotees. In turn devotees are kept in the good graces of the deity and he or she favours them. This in stark contrast to the worldview of Jewish monotheism. Though their god’s presence can be found in the natural word, he is totally independent of it being the sole creator of all things. As such he needs nothing from his creation and he cannot be influenced by people. These differences are brilliantly highlighted in the story of Micaiah and Ahab in 1 Kings 22.

As an ancient Near Eastern king, Ahab had court prophets he employed. Since the king was their client, they were to divine favour for him from the gods in support of his endeavours. So when Jehoshaphat king of Judah and asked Ahab the King of Israel to ally with him in the war against the Syrians, he sought there services. According to the story when he consulted these seers, they had visionary experiences which all indicated he would be triumphant in battle. However, there was one prophet who never prophesied in Ahab’s favour. This is very significant. Not only was a prophet who could not be hired unusual but one that would openly defy a monarch was very strange. Unlike in a modern democracy he was not protected by the laws of the land from the king’s distinct displeasure towards him. When called upon to prophesy Micaiah sarcastically agrees with the other diviners. When he is finally compelled to tell the truth he not only predicts military defeat but Ahab’s demise. This is precisely what happens.

According to the story all these prophets had genuine visionary experiences. They all received revelation from a usually hidden dimension of reality populated by various spirits. They perceived something greater than their normal perception of reality. The difference in worldview is that with Micaiah there was one deity who presided over all other spirits with absolute authority. He was not simply the highest ranked spirit entity but he was completely distinct from them, having control over all the spiritual forces that influence the world. Gods had specific domains of authority over the natural world. The god Micaiah served controlled everything. As such this most high god was the only one worthy of worship.

As you can see various worldviews can conceive of ultimate reality very differently. As such mystical experiences informed by such frameworks can be so distinct that they are contradictory. The feel of these experiences can be very similar such but their content can make a world of difference. Whether visions, trances, premonitions, intuitions, ecstasies, out of body experiences etc. mystical experiences often share a lot in common.  Even though the form these experiences take does matter, it should not take precedence over substance. In the case of Micaiah versus the king’s prophets both visionary experiences did indeed happen but only one was reliable. Both could not be true.  At the very least it means mystical experiences should not be accepted uncritically. What criteria then should be used to assess the mystical?

[1] Swinburne, R, Faith and Reason, 2nd edition, 2005.

[2], 2015.

[3] Wright, N; The New Testament and the People of God; p. 36-40; 1992.

[4] Baskin, J; Seeskin, K; The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture, pp. 399, 2010.


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