Is Mystical Experience the Antidote to Nihilism?

Is Mystical Experience the Antidote to Nihilism? September 25, 2018

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

In response to my previous post from last October, Why Experience Is Not the Foundation of (All) Spirituality, a reader recently posted this comment on Facebook:

As someone who struggles with fear and nihilism I often find myself craving an experience of god to help “cast out all doubt.” While in some ways it’s good to know I’m not the only one whose never had such an experience, it’s also nice to know there are alternatives. That said it is also scary for those like me who struggle with fears of death and meaninglessness to think that one might never find an experience to break those chains. How can a person of faith and contemplation overcome such feelings of nihilism when they don’t have any hope of a mystical experience to assist them?

Thank you for this question. I struggle with fear and nihilism too.

We live in a postmodern society where nihilism and skepticism are the default dogmas of our time. It is fashionable to reject any system of belief as merely a human construct, a “meta-narrative” by which people organize their lives but which has, it is said, no meaning outside its own reference points.

Of course, if we are going to be skeptical toward any other ideology or doctrine, we should be skeptical toward skepticism itself. But for some reason the postmodernists never seem to explore that line of thinking very far.

We are at danger of succumbing to what the integral philosopher Ken Wilber calls “aperspectival madness” — in other words, the feeling of radical rootlessness or meaninglessness that can arise from a sense that every perspective (every belief-system, every ideology) is “true” only from a limited perspective. We keep pulling back from every limited perspective, in search of a larger truth, a larger meaning-system, and we just keep falling deeper into the void: the nothingness. Nihilism.

And it doesn’t feel good.

Perhaps this is why fundamentalism (in all its many stripes) has become so popular: whether it’s religious fundamentalism, political fundamentalism, or even scientific fundamentalism (we’re looking at you, Richard Dawkins!). Fundamentalists rigidly hold on to their dogmatic belief, rejecting any contrary views as “fake news.” It seems this has become the way that many seem to cope in our radically post-creedal world.

A Way Out of the Hall of Mirrors?

My reader’s question, in essence, asks, “wouldn’t an experience of God be a way out of the hall of mirrors that has been erected by postmodern skepticism?” My response: don’t turn experience into just another fundamentalism, which is what I think a lot of experience-based spirituality (whether charismatic Christianity, or various new age mysticisms, or even the current mindfulness fad) does.

Consider this: fundamentalism may be a (toxic) antidote to radical skepticism, but it has been said that mysticism is the antidote to fundamentalism.

In other words: mysticism does not erase the void that fundamentalism tries to escape. On the contrary, mysticism accepts that very void!

Authentic mystical spirituality will not give you an “experience” to cast out all doubt. If anything, it will plunge you far deeper into nothingness than anything else has done.

Read the Christian contemplatives and mystics, from the time of the desert mothers and fathers to today. Read Evagrius, Pseud0-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa, The Cloud of Unknowing, Meister Eckhart, John Ruusbroec, John of the Cross. Again and again, they will tell you the same thing.

God cannot be “known” — at least not fully. The human mind is simply incapable of comprehending God. All that we “know” is partial and filtered down into human-sized concepts.

Therefore, God ultimately is unknowable which means that the most authentic “experience” of God radically takes us beyond experience: into darkness, into mystery, into unknowing, into wondering, into doubt, into nothingness.

That’s why you see great classics of mystical literature with titles like The Dark Night of the Soul and The Cloud of Unknowing — and remember, even the word “mystical” essential means “hidden,” as in God-the-Mystery is God-who-is-hidden-from-human-reason-and-awareness.

Here’s the scary bit. Radical Christian mysticism does not shield us from doubt and nihilism. Rather, it encourages us to embrace the silence, befriend the unknowing, enter into the doubt and the mystery, trusting that only in the radical darkness of that place beyond language, beyond concept, beyond thought and feeling — and, therefore, beyond experience — can we ever hope to encounter the living God.

Consider these little nuggets of mystical thinking, from two recent contemplative thinkers:

“In order to deny every kind of idolatry possible, a Christian must be every kind of atheist possible.”  — Denys Turner


“To believe in God is not a decision we can make. All we can do is to decide not to give our love to false Gods.” — Simone Weil

An Alternative to Overcoming

Now, back to my reader’s question. “How can a person of faith and contemplation overcome feelings of nihilism when they don’t have any hope of a mystical experience to assist them?” The answer is simple: don’t place your hope in experience. Place your hope in God.

In other words, place your hope in love. Or perhaps I should say, in Love. That’s Love-with-a-capital-L.

Yes, it’s true that people have mystical experiences. Many others never do. You don’t need a mystical experience to have faith, and having a mystical experience is in itself no guarantee of happiness, or faith, or “casting out doubt.” Experiences are fleeting, and we still have to face the emptiness in us, after the experience is gone.

This is why most mystics (John of the Cross being a fine example) simply encourage us to ignore or be non-attached to such experiences. You have an experience of God? Okay, no big deal. You’ve never had such an experience? Sure, that’s okay too. No big deal.

The trap is when we start placing our hope in such experiences. We become attached to them. Pretty soon, the “experience of God” matters more to us than God.

That’s like saying I’m more interested in sex than in love.

Don’t get me wrong: sex is a splendid gift. But it doesn’t sustain a lifelong marriage. That requires love.

And I think we all are increasingly aware of how sex without love causes suffering. That’s an epidemic in our society these days.

God is a mystery. And love is a mystery. But at least we can encounter, and befriend, and live into love in purely human terms. Even if I feel totally unloved, I can choose to love: to be loving to others. I can choose to be a blessing to others. And when we start loving others: whether that means loving a spouse or significant other, loving family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues… we can begin to extend that to loving those who are so desperately in need of love, those who are forgotten (residents of nursing homes) or impoverished (those who have no home). And Jesus keeps raising the bar. He wants us to keep loving until we even can love our enemies.

I’m not there yet. Most Christians aren’t. But that’s the invitation. That’s the call.

And so that’s why I think love is the only true antidote to fear and to nihilism. And the only true antidote to doubt and skepticism. Love does not erase all our questions, or aperspectival madness, or the trendy skepticisms of our postmodern age. Rather, love reminds us that all that mental chatter is just that: a lot of interior static. When we surrender the chattering mind, we release fear and can enter into the cloud of unknowing from a place of profound faith and love.

Once more speaking again directly to my reader: I am sorry you struggle with fear, and doubt, and the angst that comes from staring into the void. But the only way “out” is “through.” Befriend your ability to love and let it guide you, step by unknowing step, directly into the cloud of unknowing. If it’s too overwhelming, don’t do it alone. Find a friend, a companion, a spiritual director, or a therapist. But make the journey. If you don’t have faith, at least have love (hint: love is the mother of faith).

I promise you this. Your life will be transfigured beyond all imagining.

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