Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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There is a constant tug-of-war at the heart of any discussion about mysticism. One group thinks of mystical experience as contact between this changeable world and an ultimate, unchanging eternity. The other acknowledges mystical experiences but thinks that it is essentially a physical state, though no less valuable for being just that.

This difference of understanding echoes a philosophical difference which has existed since the earliest times. Heraclitus was a Greek thinker who lived around 500bc. He looked at the world and concluded that everything is in a state of constant change. Parmenides lived in Greece about the same time. His conclusion was that nothing changes. Later, Plato tried to resolve this contradiction by concluding that both are correct. The world does change constantly, but behind what we know through our senses is an unchanging absolute.

Once Christian theologians had taken on board Plato's solution as a way of expressing what they thought about the relationship of Jesus to the Creator, the idea of mysticism as a way of penetrating the veil between God and humanity became more or less universal in the Christian world. Mysticism in the West today is, I think, widely linked with vague ideas and methods derived from Buddhism. But in earlier times one was more likely to be a successful mystic if, for example, one was celibate. Thus the Christian ascetic Jerome around the end of the fourth century wrote to a young female convert, Eustochium:

Ever let the privacy of your chamber guard you; ever let the Bridegroom sport with you within. Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you ... [1]

At any rate, mystical experience in the Christian world until the modern age was thought to result from a good relationship with God through Jesus. It was sometimes achieved through techniques which closely resemble those of many other religions - prayer, fasting, meditation, worship and ritual among them. The basic approach was a determined detachment from outer sensation. Attention to any but basic physical need, it was thought, interferes with our capacity to hear God's voice.

What happens to a person who reports a mystical experience? Does it relate to something or someone as it were "outside" the person? Or is it an entirely subjective state brought on either by doing certain things, or by certain physical conditions?

An extremely influential response was provided at the beginning of the twentieth century by the pioneering psychologist William James in his famous The Varieties of Religious Experience [2]. He asks what criteria mark off a mystical experience from any other. He thinks that there are four: (1) A mystical experience can't be described - it is "ineffable"; (2) it seems to involve a state of knowing - it is "noetic"; (3) it can't be sustained for long; and (4) the person is passive "... as if he were grasped and held by a superior power". Interestingly, he points out, all these criteria are also met by certain drug-induced states, for example the form of consciousness resulting from breathing nitrous oxide ("laughing gas"). He thinks that

... our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

The different, ecstatic nature of mysticism raises problems of description for those who experience it. Some, like Dionysius the Areopagite in the first century could talk about it only in negatives. Others fall back on paradoxical metaphor such as "dazzling obscurity" and "whispering silence". James suggests that common to all mystical experience, whatever the religion or methodology or explanation, is ...

... the overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute ... In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.

People who have the mystical experience can seldom be convinced by any suggestion that it is an illusion. It is quite simply too real for them. It has exactly the same qualities as any other good experience. As a consequence, their sense of the objectivity of the mystical seems largely invulnerable. I for one don't wish to deny its reality and validity - though I will perhaps get defensive if anyone suggests that I am somehow incomplete for not having it.

Keith Yandell puts his finger on what may be a definitive problem with reports of mystical experience. In an article on Religious Experience he rightly points out that subjective reality is by definition private. So if you tell me that you've had a certain experience I can't contradict you. But if you say, "There's a pink elephant behind that bush" I am right in trying to confirm its existence. If I then can't see it I may be justified in suspecting that you're either in the last stages of delirium tremens or in some other way mentally disturbed. But I must nevertheless concede that the elephant is real to you.

There's nothing wrong with the mystic's argument up to this point. But the next step raises suspicions. The person reporting a subjective experience may, for example, belong

... to a strange cult in which such imaginings are alleged to yield instant immortality ... If [the person] reports the experience by saying "I have achieved immortality," [the person] over-reports ... one can see the point of insisting that ... the experience is accurately captured by the first report [of a subjective experience] and left well behind by the second. [3]

I must respect and acknowledge the person who tells me, "I've had an experience in which I lost all sense of personal boundaries. With this went a sense of complete personal well-being, as though I knew the answers to all the questions of life and somehow felt at one with the Creator." But the person who goes on to assert with Theresa of Avila  that, "It was granted me to perceive in one instant how all things are seen and contained in God", may be drawing a conclusion which, at the very least, can't be verified. The mystic has taken a step too far. 
R W Hepburn puts it well:

To feel that an experience is revelatory is one thing; to judge confidently that it is so is quite another. A dream under nitrous oxide may strike the dreamer with the force of a satanic revelation, but on awakening and correlating the nightmare with the shock of tooth extraction, he may have little temptation to judge the experience as a genuine disclosure. [4]  

Some will no doubt say that one way of finding out if St Theresa's report is true is to seek and have the same experience. If six million mystics reported on their experiences (only 0.1 percent of the world's population), what chance would there be of two identical reports, I wonder? The problem with this solution is that even if all six billion of the world's total population took this route, there would be no way of confirming that the experience of each was common to all. I have found, like William James, that every report of a mystical experience differs from every other, sometimes significantly. 

One school of philosophy maintains that complete reality belongs only to "the Absolute". Everything else is merely an "appearance". The Absolute is beyond description. F H Bradley (1846-1924)  proposed that ordinary life is riddled with contradictions [4]. Our intellect demands freedom from such contradictions and this freedom can be attained only by understanding reality (the Absolute). We can experience the Absolute when all contradictions are resolved into a harmonious whole, when we penetrate down into an unbroken wholeness of feeling such as lies below ordinary thought. The latter always involves forming relations between things, and inevitably therefore leads us into contradictions. The Absolute, on the other hand, is spiritual and supra-personal. From here it's a short step to asserting that the Absolute can be accessed through a mystical experience.

The variations on this theme (usually termed "idealism") are many and varied. Others have taken different routes. J H Leuba (1867-1946) held that "... religious mysticism is a revelation not of God but of man" [4]. It therefore falls within the natural realm rather than the spiritual. This leaning towards mysticism as a natural phenomenon was also, though painted on a wider canvas, the stance of W R Inge (1860-1954), otherwise known as the "gloomy Dean" (of St Paul's Cathedral, London) for his pessimism about modern society. Mysticism for him is a fundamental tendency of human beings. It's available to all, not just to specialist mystics. It includes the rational faculty and is therefore a controlled activity of the whole personality.

It's all very well to harp on subjective experience - but what about the real world? Is mysticism perhaps an escape from the real, or does it somehow connect with something "out there". Bertrand Russell wonders if it is correct to say that what the mystical experience results in is truly "knowledge". He thinks not: "Insight, untested and unsupported, is an insufficient guarantee of truth". His point is similar to that of Yandell above. Drawing conclusions from the mystical experience - such as that there is something or someone "out there" is a way other things are not "out there" for us - is misconceived. A longer quotation from Russell may serve to clarify this important point:

Ever since Plato, most philosophers have considered it part of their business to produce "proofs" of immortality and the existence of God. In order to make their proofs seem valid, they have had to falsify logic, to make mathematics mystical, and to pretend that deep-seated prejudices were heaven-sent intuitions. All this is rejected by the philosophers who make logical analysis the main business of philosophy. They confess frankly that the human intellect is unable to find conclusive answers to many questions of profound importance to mankind, but they refuse to believe that there is some "higher" way of knowing, by which we can discover truths hidden from science and the intellect. [1] 

Great scientists like Max Planck and Albert Einstein more or less followed this view of what the "other out there" of mysticism turns out to be. It was Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) whose physical theories opened up to many the possibility of confirming the mystical experience. His contribution to physical theory was the "uncertainty principle". When one examines the smallest particles of matter, one discovers that certain aspects of those particles can be known only in terms of probabilities. Statistics takes over from measurement. 

This takes us,  he said, out of the rigid framework of Newtonian natural science. Scientists are wrong if they think that the "language" used by science can be applied to everything without exception. Even in its own realm it has proved insufficient. Why then should they think that science can also confirm or deny our attempts to talk about God, for instance? He concluded that "... modern physics has perhaps opened the door to a wider outlook in the relation between the human mind and reality" [5]. I don't think the early promise of Heisenberg's physics has been realised. This is because it doesn't answer the basic difficulty we have noted above of extrapolating from the subjective to the objective. As Russell remarks, all science is based on the belief that an "objective" does exist, even though we can know only aspects of it - and even then, not for certain and always and only provisionally.

So far we have explored briefly the possibility of a correspondence between mystical experience and an "out there", generally called "God" or the "Absolute". This correspondence may exist. But there seems no way of confirming it, except by personal conviction. At the same time, we mustn't miss the basic fallacy of so much scientific thought, which goes something like this:

Scientists can verify the existence of things which are real by rational analysis and measurement. Therefore, that which can't be verified by science isn't real.

In the specifically Christian stable, mysticism is regarded as a nourishing feed by some and as a potentially toxic weed by others. The Orthodox churches have preserved a strong attachment to earlier Christian ways of regarding the world. For them, by and large, mystics are the elite, nearer to God than most. Mysticism is by this account an ecstatic state which allows as much of a perception of the divine as is possible for human beings. The Roman Catholic Church preserves a similar approach, modified only by its all-embracing need to divide the world into controllable compartments. 

Anglicans (as in most things) include those who would be at home in the Orthodox tradition and those who would sympathise more with the Reformed tradition. The latter is suspicious of an emphasis on mysticism and ecstasy. It fears that the disciplines involved in mysticism might lead to a position in which God can be approached through our own efforts instead of only through God's freely-granted grace. It seems to worry also that its Augustinian concepts of human sinfulness might be replaced by the idea that we can put ourselves to rights by learning mystical techniques. Nor does the Reformed tradition much like the idea that God might be approached through disciplines like fasting and celibacy, both so central to older concepts of mysticism.

I think it important to note that the Christian approach to mysticism, whether positive or negative, always assumes a Platonic connection between subjective experience and an external Absolute. The mystical experience then becomes a unifying vision of life, or even more - a merging with the Absolute (God) in an intense, joyous experience. Sometimes the experience involves a perception of the multiplicity of nature as a single, numinous unity in which all distinctions are obliterated. Sometimes it involves an inward-looking experience in which awareness of oneself dissolves into unity and all subject-object distinctions no longer apply.

Another option when thinking about mysticism is to acknowledge the mystic's experience as entirely subjective, and proceed to consider only the terms with which that experience is described. In this case it is possible, and so some degree useful, to suggest that mystical descriptions consist entirely of metaphor. That is, it proves impossible to use logic and analysis to think about such things. So if a mystic talks about losing herself in a sea of joy, we know that a certain class of language is being used - one which we normally call poetic. Poetry conveys a certain kind of truth which few would deny is, if not useful, then deeply meaningful to many. In a sense this sort of language is the right way to proceed, since we can only talk about God (the indescribable Absolute) in metaphors such as "father " or "light" to select but two of a huge number of possible instances. This has the merit of explaining why mystics tend to disagree with each other so often. It is a state of mind which is being described, not some sort of external reality.

At least one more possible way ahead exists. Might it not be possible to reject all the usual explanations of mysticism and yet give it the highest possible intrinsic value? The Buddhist version of this option is to accord the mystical approach the greatest possible power while giving it only a minimal theoretical explanation. This isn't attractive to the Western mind, however.

Recent research into processes of the human brain by A Newberg, E d'Aquili and V Rause may have located the nature of the mystical experience [6]. They have been able to describe how brain activity changes when subjects describe themselves as in touch with the numinous. Exactly what they found isn't important here. What does matter is that the mystical process does apparently have its analogue in certain definable brain activities. We shouldn't say that brain activity equates with mysticism. To see a pattern of brain activity on a scanner is not the same as observing a mystical experience. What we can say, strictly speaking, is that when certain mystical experiences have been reported, certain analogous brain activity has been observed.

These observations can nevertheless, I think, be taken to confirm the subjective nature of some, if not all, mystical experience. It's unlikely that we'll ever know if such experiences are evoked by or correlate with anything "out there". Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that what is reported to be an immensely rewarding experience is just that - an experience which tells us something about the nature of things, including humanity, but which doesn't necessarily say anything about God. Even science depends, in the last resort, upon a type of metaphor to describe the world. Once this is realised then any supposed conflict between science and mysticism dissolves. Let Albert Einstein have the final word:

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavour to understand reality, we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears it ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. [7]

[1] Quoted by Bertrand Russell in History of Western Philosophy, Allen &
      Unwin, 1965
[2] Longmans, Green & Co, 1907
[3] A Companion to the Philosophy of Religion, Eds P L Quinn and C
     Taliaferro, Blackwell, 1997
[4] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 1967
[5] Described by John Macquarrie in Twentieth-Century Religious Thought,
      SCM Press Ltd, 1963
[6] Why God Won't Go Away, Ballantine Books, 2001
[7] Quoted by Newberg et al