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John Fenton - Mystical Experience as a Bridge for Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion

John Fenton - Mystical Experience as a Bridge for Cross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion

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The Journal of the American Academy of Religion,
XLIX/1
Mystical Experience as a Bridge forCross-Cultural Philosophy of Religion:A Critique
John Y. Fenton
I. The "Essence" of Mystical Experience
T
he belief that mystical experience is both ineffable and essentiallythe same in all religious traditions has become fairly common inthe twentieth century. The use made, by different authors, ofthese two alleged facts about mystical experience varies but, in general,putative ineffability has been used to discount all language and alldifferences in language about mystical experience as merely accidentaland to characterize mystical experience as either trans- or subconceptual.Putative unanimity in the descriptions mystics have given of theirexperiences follows easily from the ineffability of the experiences. Sinceineffability supposedly makes it impossible to make any distinctionsbetween one ineffable experience and another, and since theologicalinterpretations have nothing to do with mystical experience, all mysticalexperiences are therefore essentially the same./l/In the more extended forms of the claim that mystical experience isineffable, the experience becomes so different from other kinds ofexperience that ineffability becomes unique to mystical experience andeven a part of its definition. A barrier is made to appear betweenmystical experience and its interpretation, so that nonmystics cannotreally know anything about mystical experience. Mystical experience issometimes characterized as subconceptual—as primarily emotive, aes-thetic, or consisting in a certain sort of attitude or special awareness./2/Other authors understand mystical intuition to be transconceptual—aspecial kind of truth or wisdom that far transcends ordinary conceptualknowledge. It is only a small additional step to argue that mystical
John Y. Fenton (Ph.D., Princeton University) is Associate Professor of Religionat Emory University. He is the editor of
Theology
and
Body
and has contributedarticles to various journals.
 
52 John
Y.
Fentonintuition
is
self-authenticating
and
indubitable. Truth then appears,implicitly
or
explicitly,
at two
levels, with ordinary human
knowledge
confined
to the
level
of
mere conceptually, below
wisdom
and
incom-mensurate with
it.
Knowledge, scholarly
or
otherwise,
is
thus unable
to
get
at
mystical wisdom.
The
claim that mystical intuition
is
transconcep-tual also gives additional support
to the
claim that mystical testimony
is
unanimous
in
essence. Since truth must always
be in
agreement with
itself,
mystical truth, wherever
it is
found, must also
be in
essentialagreement with
itself.
.Specific traditional contexts
in
which mysticalexperience occurs
can
therefore
be
ignored,
and
common factors
in the
universal mystical experience
can be
abstracted
and
generalized withoutrespect
to
context./3/
The
truth
as
understood
in one
mystical traditioncan also
be
used
to
understand
the
truth
in any
other mystical tradition.Extracted from
its
contexts, mystical experience then appears
to
tran-scend linguistic, cultural, philosophical,
and
theological differences
as a
sort
of
universal vision,
and the
unanimous testimony
of
mystics givesmysticism
a
kind
of
intersubjective verification that
is in
principlereplicable.Against this common argument,
the
thesis here
is
that mysticalexperience
is not
ineffable
in the
strong sense,
and
mystical experiencesvary significantly from
one
tradition
to
another.
The
putative unanimityof mystical experience
is
based primarily upon
its
putative ineffability.
It
must first
be
shown that mystical experience
is not
ineffable
in the
strong sense discussed before
it
will
be
possible
to
treat differences
in
theological description
and
evaluation among different mystical tradi-tions
as
significant.While
it is
true that mystical experience
is
frequently
not
suscep-tible
to
straightforward literal description,
and
while
the
relationship
of
mystical experience
to
conceptuality
is
complex
and
somewhat peculiar,the language mystics
use to
talk about mystical experience does commu-nicate meaningfully
and
gives specific directions
to the
aspiring student.Once this
has
been proved,
it
will
be
possible
to
marshal sufficientevidence
to
show that
the
language
of
mystics discriminates
the
rightmethod
and the
right mystical experience from counterfeits
and
thatdifferent mystical traditions disagree with each other about which expe-riences
are the
right ones
and
which
are
counterfeit. Within specificmystical traditions theology
has a
constitutive role because
the
issue
at
stake
is
liberation,
or
salvation.The combination
of
ineffability with unanimity
on
this subject
has,
of course,
a
certain initial implausibility that strikes
one
immediately.
If
mystical experience were completely ineffable,
it
would have
no
intellec-tual content
and no
descriptive characteristics,
and the
claim
to
unanimi-ty would
be
meaningless. Alternatively,
if the
claim
to
unanimousdescription
of the
mystical experience
is
meaningful, then
the
experi-ence must
in
some sense
be
characterizable,
and
mystical experience
is
thus
not
entirely ineffable. Ineffability
and
unanimity cancel each other.
 
Mystical Experience 53
II.
Ineffability and Mystical ExperienceIneffability as such is not sufficient either to set off one particularkind of experience from all others or to classify them all together as thesame experience. We all have experiences that are difficult to describe. Icannot very well tell anyone what it feels like to have an orgasm, butmy inability to do so seems to be no reason to equate orgasm withother indescribables such as mystical ecstasy. Indescribability is notunique to mystical experiences.Our inability to describe orgasm adequately causes little difficulty,primarily because a consensual fund of experience makes up for theinadequacy of the words we use to talk about it. The communicationproblem seems to be much more striking in the case of mystical ecstasy.If shared experience is absent it will be considerably more difficult tobreak through the words. But meditational experience is becomingmuch more common for a sizable minority of Americans, and it is atleast comparable to mystical experience. Meditation may provide "fore-tastes" of what mystical experience is like. This sort of comparableexperience makes mystical ineffability less of a problem than it mighthave been formerly.Orgasm has no close analogues (although it has been compared tomystical experience). The lack of common experience would maketalking about orgasm with a prepubescent child extremely difficult. Butprepubescent children are by no means incapable of various degrees ofsexual arousal. There are thus analogues in the child's experience thatwould make it possible to communicate something about this experiencewhich he or she has not yet had (if the child were interested). As amale I have only the most flimsy notion of what female orgasm is like,and females probably have the same difficulty comprehending maleorgasm. Yet reasonable communication is possible because the male andfemale orgasms are at least analogues of each other. If there areanalogues to mystical experience in common experience, mystical expe-rience will also not be totally ineffable.Some things that are initially indescribable may become describablewhen we have understood them better. Some cases resist clear under-standing. But even for these a conventional language and vocabularycan be developed if talking about these matters is important to us.Special conventional languages of this sort have at times been developedwithin the mystical traditions. The inner experiential reality of bothmystical experience and orgasm nevertheless seems to be at leastpartially lost in attempts to express this reality in direct, literal descrip-tion even of a conventional sort. The mystical traditions also ascribe acertain sacred aura to mystical experience that makes direct descriptioninappropriate, if not taboo (Proudfoot:361-64). When conventional

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