God And The Mystical Experience (Philosophy Paper)
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
In this paper, I am going to prove that the introvertive mystical experience of God allows the experiencer to justify his belief in God because, while having the experience, he has no ability to think otherwise. Indeed, when you have, in the words of Meister Eckhart, “let God be God in you (94),” thoughts are eradicated, and thus disallow the experiencer to question his ontological resonance—or union—with God. In this union, I am going to argue that the experiencer obtains a non-discursive knowledge for the evidence of God.
My paper will be structured as follows: (1) this first section will cover what certain people define the mystical experience as, what it would look like and why it poses a deep philosophical problem (2) The second section of my paper will be a section solely dedicated to the defense of my thesis; that is, why I think the mystical experience gives us justificatory reasons for believing in God (3) This section will be replying to certain critics of the mystical experience and their arguments against the justificatory power of it (4) And lastly, I will provide the reader with my conclusion. Although this is a philosophical paper, it is my hope that readers, before arguing against my claim, attempt to experience this delightful kingdom for themselves (if they haven’t all ready) before criticizing my argument, as it can only be of use to chat about the mystical experience—and come up with a descriptive phenomenology for it—if we have both similarly experienced it (this is something I will reiterate quite thoroughly throughout my paper and a mistake Sir Bertrand Russell was quite fond of making). Nietzsche, I think, articulated this quite perfectly when he said, “A man has no ears for that to which experience has given him no access.” Indeed, a man has no right to criticize any defense of a mystical experience until the experience has given him access to do so.
The mystical experience can be categorized into two sections: the extrovertive and the introvertive. The extrovertive experience, as William Rowe quite accurately describes, “looks outward through the senses into the world around us and finds the Divine reality there” (78). An example of this would be something like that described by N.M. (we are not given the full name), whom, when peering at the backyard of an apartment building, saw every object in his field of vision take “on a curious and intense kind of existence of it’s own.” From his perspective, everything “existed as he existed, having inwardness, an individual life—appearing exceedingly beautiful (78).” The introvertive experience, on the other hand, “turns inward and finds the reality in the deepest part of the self” (78). An example of this would be something like that mentioned by Pojman in his paper, A Critique From The Argument From Religious Experience, where an individual “senses himself absorbed into the one, wherein the subject-object distinction ceases to hold.” (131) St. John the Cross called this experience the ‘union of love.’ In this union, he says, “We receive the mystical knowledge of God clothed in none of the kinds of images, in none of the sensible representations, which our mind makes use of in other circumstances. Accordingly in this knowledge, since the senses and the imagination are not employed, we get neither form nor impression, nor can we give any account or furnish any likeness, although the mysterious and sweet-tasting wisdom comes home so clearly to the inmost parts of our soul.” (352) At this point in the paper, it would only be right for me to highlight the main issue these sort of experiences pose for philosophy; if you haven’t yet figured it out, it is the ineffability of them. Like a poem, a piece of music or painting, these experiences simply cannot be put into a literal language. However, this does not at all mean that we do not “in a sense know things which cannot be significantly and informatively asserted.” (22) God is something (I hesitate to use any other word) that can be by everyone, but not through a conscious discursive intellectual act, since it is not statable in the sense that its content can be informatively conveyed in language.” (24) The word, “water,” for example, is radically different from the experience of bathing in the actual beauty of it. Likewise, the word, “God” is an arbitrary symbol for something that—beyond language and with the correct faculties—we can bathe in. In the words of Aldous Huxley: “it is only those who have made themselves loving, pure in heart, and poor in spirit” (2) who gain empirical evidence of this God that cannot be put into words.
Although the extrovertive experience is as counterintuitive to the rational mind as the introvertive, there is still a subject-object distinction; and this, I argue, cannot count for the evidence of God, for within that experience, one is still well within the lands of human faculties, and can contemplate or doubt (however difficult it may be) the experience he is going through. In contrast to this, the introvertive experience, “wherein the subject-object distinction ceases to exist,” totally extinguishes an individual’s identity with their senses and human faculties (the five senses, memory, thoughts and understanding), and thus forbids the experiencer to question his ecstatic absorption in God. In this absorption, one is not separate from, but in union with, God. So, however beautiful an extrovertive experience of the divine may be, it is not as convincing as the introvertive. For this reason, I tend (yet again) to agree with Aldous Huxley who, in The Perennial Philosophy, expressed this wonderful statement: “Direct knowledge of the Ground cannot be had except by union, and union can be achieved only by the annihilation of the self-regarding ego, which is the barrier separating the “thou” from the “That.” (35)
The introvertive mystical experience of God allows one to justify his belief in God because he simply has no other choice. Imagine, for example, what it would be like to be in a world where it would be absolutely impossible to doubt. This is precisely what it is like to be in union with God. In fact, Meister Eckhart (the famous Christian mystic), went so far as to say that “if one experiences knowledge of ultimacy (ultimacy here meaning God) and simultaneously knows that one does so, this suggests that there is some aspect of self, some residual dimension of meta awareness, that is not subsumed in the knowing of ultimacy itself.” (112) One can only agree with the words of Tobias Chapman, whom, after a considerate amount of discussion on the difficulty of independently verifying the mystical experience, states that, “the psychological feeling that certain beliefs are true does not guarantee the truth and can, in fact, attach itself to the most preposterous beliefs.” (10) In the particular case of Meister Eckhart, though, the psychological feeling about knowing God is in total contrast with being absorbed in God. It is only when the soul “knows nothing about knowing…or about anything at all” that he is in the “more consuming, and ultimately more perfect, modality of knowledge.” (112) I think we can all agree that if one is in a certain state that does not know anything at all—or feels it knows anything at all—it is impossible to think, let alone doubt the experience he is going through. Of course, the recipient may jump out of this transient experience and then doubt it. This is totally acceptable (and in my opinion, even necessary). But the state of awe that an individual is in after his faculties go to sleep (in the subjective and experiential sense), memory deceases, understanding disappears and five senses vanish, must, I declare, instill a fire within him to search practically for more evidence and answers. This leads me to the distinction that the mystic Saint Teresa made between “True” union and “Delectable” union. This distinction is indispensable for our further inquiry into this topic as it brings in the characteristic of consistency—the game changer (or, as you Americans like to call it, “dagger”). As many have noted (and correctly so), the mystical experience is transient. But, says Hollenback, “one would make a serious error if he were to conclude from this that union with God is nothing more than a peculiar species of trance.” (544) Meister Eckhart, too, is much more concerned with “a more permanent state of being that would infuse the every day life of the religious individual.” (92) So then, delectable union refers to experiences that take place in euphoric absorption. This union is the experience of God that we have been discussing throughout the paper (absorption into the one and the sleeping of the senses). True union is “the perfect conformity of the subject’s will with God’s will.” In this union, the effect it has on the individual is not so much on his/her state of consciousness, but rather on his actions, character and moral fiber in every day life. The direct experience of God (delectable union) is only of any use to the experiencer if it allows him to step into a consistent—and congruent relationship—with God. I like to think of the direct experience of God as the door opening to God’s will. It certainly makes it easier to step into it, but it is the responsibility of the recipient—with the help of spiritual exercises and ethical virtuosity—that he can enhance his ability to act in accordance with God’s will. And because we cannot rely on science to verify whether we have harmonized ourselves with God’s will since “it does not confine itself to the experience of human beings in their merely human and unmodified condition (xi),” we must rely on the empirical experience itself, which gives us a livening sense of equality, unutterable delight and mutual dependence. To rationalists and skeptics, this may seem quite absurd, again, because it may be nothing but a feeling of knowing God (when in fact, one doesn’t), but this critique, again, comes from outside the experience itself. Furthermore, mystics have continually expressed that this consistent union with God (true union), like the delectable experience, is not a feeling about knowing God every second of the day, but rather being and acting in God every second of the day. This experience, like the delectable one (apart from its ecstatic absorption), is in the state of, to go back to the previous quote, “Knowing nothing about knowing…or anything at all.” It is a state of thoughtless and consistent being. As we discussed earlier, when one is in this state, it is impossible to doubt or question whether the state is veridical or not because he is absorbed in it, just as an individual in deep sleep is unable to doubt whether he is in fact sleeping. Although true union and the extrovertive mystical experience both look out through the senses, it is worth noting that one is a transient experience (the extrovertive mystical experience), while the other is a state of consistent being. This is why I, Meister Eckhart and St. Teresa prefer the latter. When one has had an experience of union, it gives justification for believing in God. But when one has come out of that experience and surrendered into the will of God—reaching a state of consistency—I do not think the man needs to justify his belief at all. He has become, embodied, and allows his character, moral intelligence and emanating love to speak for itself. This is why I have always preferred the Eastern way of living, as it is not based on what one knows, but rather what one is. Embodying the experience one has gone through (“I am”) trumps any sort of language that attempts to prove it (“I know, because”). In this sense, “it is the meaningfulness and the effect the experience has on the life of the experiencer” (29) that counts as the evidence for that which he has experienced. People outside of the experience can see and measure the validity of the experience by acknowledging the character of the man who has come out of it, not his arguments for it. For example, if someone claims to have had a mystical experience of God and then immediately goes out to a bar, gets drunk and indulges in the unregenerate acts of the reptilian mind, we can rightfully throw away his declaration as false. If, on the other hand, we see a dramatic upsurge in the man’s character, love for humanity and ethical brilliance, we can rightfully declare his experience as well grounded.
There have been many critics of the mystical experience, but for the sake of brevity, I will concentrate on the two I deem most important: Bertrand Russell and Louis Pojman. Bertrand Russell argues that, “the mystic demands changes in the observer, by fasting, by breathing exercises, and by a careful abstention,” and argues that such states “lead to abnormal, unreliable perceptions, perceptions that are more than likely delusory.” Therefore, according to Russell, the mystic is not justified in believing God. Bertrand Russell, however, is speaking from that unreliable vantage point itself, which comes from the man whom has no ears because experience has given him no access. It is a grave mistake to criticize anything at all if one hasn’t had the experience for themselves. If I have not yet driven a Ferrari, and go on to criticize the functionality of it, I am committing an unpardonable error. If philosophers, instead of relying on argumentative logic and language, applied the discipline and courage to change their medium of perception (one that is streaks away from ordinary sense-perception), they would realize—through experience—that the “abnormality” Russell speaks of in these mystical states is, to use the words of Broad, “a peep hole into the super-sensible world.” (85) Unfortunately, the majority of philosophers will read this and proclaim, “Well, how do you know? Prove it.” In this case, they would expect me to offer a valid and sound argument for the existence of this “super-sensible” world. But again, using language, words or formal logic to prove something that is not within that modality of knowledge is pointless.
Louis P. Pojman, in his paper, A Critique Of The Argument From The Religious Experience, argues that there are three main issues with the mystical experience: (1) there are discrepancies between accounts (2) they tend to be amorphous and varied and (3) They are seldom verified. For these reasons, like William James, he thinks that these experiences only count as justification for those who have had them. I am going to disagree with this for a various amount of reasons—all of which I will touch on with as much precision as possible. Pojman echoes with the voice of Stephen Katz when he says, “All experiencing takes place within the framework of a worldview.” In other words, context plays a huge role in the experience that someone goes through. He brings up the example of being exposed to the literature of various religions. Surely, he says, “if you had been brought up in a Hindu culture, wouldn’t you be more likely to have Hindu religious experiences than a Christian type?” (133) According to Pojman, “what we see depends to some degree on our background beliefs and expectations.” (133) However, as Blum mentioned in his book, Zen And The Unspeakable God, “contextualism (the view that context determines a religious experience) can lead to misleading conclusions about mystical experience and prejudges the results of comparative inquiry.” (32) If, for example, we find some accounts of the mystical experience that (a) come from people of a different context and (b) are strikingly similar in their content, then Pojman—as well as Katz—are incorrect. So, where do we run to find these accounts? Well, to Jason Blum, of course. In Jason Blum’s book, he has been so sincere as to compare the mystical experiences of three different mystics from three different contexts: Hui-Neng (Zen), Meister Eckhart (Christianity) and Ibn Al Arabi (Islam). And in all of these accounts, he has found the only similarity we need, namely that they “reveal an identical structure in the relationship between mystic and ultimacy (God): the ultimacy the mystic encounters in the midst of his experience is identical to his own nature. (139) All of these encounters with God “that are identical to the mystic’s own nature” is the union—or introvertive experience with God—that I have been discussing as direct evidence for God. The fact that these are not extrovertive should, again, highlight my reasons for not endorsing it as the evidence for God. Indeed, context may play a huge role in someone’s extrovertive mystical experience, as one is still within the cultural milieu—looking outward through the senses. But in the case of the introvertive experience, “the mystic empties himself of psychic attachments to the mundane world, and clears away materialistic thoughts and tendencies, putting aside even themes, images, and ideas central to their respective religious traditions.” (118, 119)
This, then, immediately sacks Pojman’s second issue with the religious experience—that it is amorphous and varied. Yes, it certainly is (if we are speaking of the extroverted version), but in the case of the introverted one (which I have argued as the only evidence that allows one to justify his belief in God), there is a recurrent theme from all the mystics; namely oneness and the obliteration of the subject-object distinction.
Lastly (and my favorite) is Pojman’s critique of the religious experience being impossible to confirm. Indeed, we cannot confirm the religious experience in the same way that we can confirm perceptual experience. But this does not mean that we cannot confirm the experience at all. In Donald Bishop’s book, Mysticism And The Mystical Experience, he correctly states that “epistemologically, a mystical experience is not like a sensory experience, and it is invalid, therefore, to evaluate the former in terms of criteria used for latter or to force a mystical state into the same mold as a sensory experience.” (29) To rely on science, then, to verify a mystical experience would be quite absurd, as science relies so heavily on the senses. Therefore—and insofar as we are all human beings on the hunt to find the ultimate ground of reality—we should apply the necessary techniques of ecstasy that allow us to verify these experiences for ourselves. These techniques include rigorous ethical behavior, meditation, yoga and a mature application of methodology with regard to some psychedelic drugs (in Hindu culture, the use of psychedelics is a method—or “Upaya”—to get to God). These all have the ability, mystics say, to affect the divine itself and to facilitate a relationship with it. But we can never know this until man experiments with his moral and psychological life with the same thoroughness that scientists apply to the physical life. We must, as Aldous Huxley asserts, “fulfill certain conditions and obey certain rules, which experience has shown empirically to be valid.” (ix) It is then (and only then) that we may confirm what mystics have been talking about for centuries. As for independently checking the veridical nature of the experience (and to remind the reader of what I stated before) we can verify someone’s mystical experience by acknowledging the love and compassion the experiencer now radiates with such genuine authenticity. For these reasons, I do not agree with all of what Pojman or William James say when they declare that those outside of the experience should not justify their belief in God without evaluating the mystic’s experience critically. If there are accounts from a multitude of mystics that the experience of God can be reached—and the techniques to reach it are available—the individual outside of the experience should not “think critically” (as James and Pojman want them to) about whether it is true or not, but rather apply the necessary techniques in order to experience it for themselves. If they wish not to apply such techniques, it is their own lack of discipline that will, in the end, keep them hidden from such sparkling treasure.
In this paper, I have proven that the intrinsic mystical experience of God is justification for believing in God because, while having the experience, a man has no reason (or ability) to choose otherwise. In addition to this, I have also shown that the experience can lead to a consistent state of blissful being (if the recipient is serious enough about it) unknown to those still within the bounds of human rationality and reason. I have also replied to some of the arguments against the religious experience, and stated that those outside the mystic’s experience should apply the necessary techniques in order to confirm what mystic’s have been saying for centuries.
Karl Rahner made quite a controversial claim when he said, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.” I would like to utter a similar assertion, but aim it at the philosophers of today: The philosopher of the future must be a mystic, or everything we do will be mere intellectual masturbation without any direction (I know this is a formal paper, but I just had to).
“Talk as much philosophy as you please, worship as many gods as you like, observe all ceremonies, sing devoted praises to any number of divine being—liberation never comes without the realization of the oneness of self.”—Shankara
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