Response to Modern World-View Responses

I begin with a confession of electronic communication ignorance: I have not yet learned how to reply to “replies” to my blogs. I’m working on it. And so in this blog, I reply to a repeated theme in the replies.

Namely, why do I not regard mystical experiences as divine interventions? I begin by recognizing that they feel like interventions. William James in his classic description of mystical experiences in his equally classic “The Varieties of Religious Experiences” lists as one of their characteristics “passivity” – by which he meant that one receives them; one can’t actively make them happen. Rather, they happen.

I have no idea why everybody doesn’t have them, though perhaps we all did in very early childhood but no longer remember. The few statistical studies I’ve seen suggest that about 1/3 of American adults have had at least one, and about 5 to 10% several or many. I do not know whether statistics for other parts of the world, or earlier times, would be different. However, the evidence is overwhelming that people in every culture we know much about have them. They are not the property of just one religious tradition.

Modern Western culture may interfere with such experiences. Think of how different our lives are from our ancestors just over a century ago. To a large extent, we live and work inside, insulated from nature, its rhythms and seasons, its beauty and terror. We have domesticated the night and the glory of the night sky with the marvel of electricity and light 24 hours a day. We live in a world of perpetual sound, including virtually omnipresent Muzak. The dominant understanding of our world not only has labels for everything, but domesticates the world and thus disenchants it. And modern Western culture is focused on making and consuming, which leads us to focus on the surface level of reality, as Paul Tillich pointed out in the middle of the 20th century. So perhaps mystical experiences happened more often in the past.

The reason I do not think of these as divine interventions is the same as the reason that I don’t think God does things like parting the sea a long time ago for the sake of the fleeing slaves, but doesn’t regularly do that for people in peril. Examples could be multiplied. And so with mystical experiences – why would God “decide” to give them to some people and not others? Why not be content to say: mystical experiences happen – and we don’t know why they happen to some and not to others?

Do such experiences prove the reality of God? No. But for those who have them, they carry with them the conviction that reality is much more, much grander, much more glorious, than we commonly experience it to be. They are, to use a phrase from Abraham Heschel, experiences of “radical amazement.” And they are marked by gratitude. They are so extraordinary that they commonly lead to the exclamation, “Oh my God!”

Finally, I add that Buddhist mystical experiences of “nothingness” may be the same as many Christian mystical experiences. More than one Christian mystic has spoken of God as “nothing” – that is, as not “a thing” like other existing “things,” not “a being” like other existing “beings,” but as “the Nothing” (the no-thing) that is present everywhere. Of course, I cannot speak for Buddhists. But the contrast that is sometimes made between Buddhist mystical experiences (especially in its Zen form) and Christian mystical experiences may not really be a contrast.

So. Mystical experiences, yes. Divine interventions, no.


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