Mystical Experience: Interpretation and Comparison

Jason N. Blum, University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

The dominant position in contemporary analyses of mystical experience is that of Steven Katz, who argues that all experience is necessarily mediated. This perspective insists that direct experience (experience unmediated by context) cannot happen, and maintains that mystical experiences arising from different religious traditions and contexts will, necessarily, be different. The study of mystical experience has thus been largely controlled by an epistemological claim that has been the subject of great debate. I argue that this method is misleading in the interpretation of mystic experiential accounts. Drawing on empirical examples, I show that accounts of mystical experience do not always accord with context or mainstream religious doctrine, and sometimes diverge from them in significant ways. Interpretation, if controlled by the assumption of contextual mediation, can and does lead to the misrepresentation of mystical experience. In response, I construct a method for interpreting mystic experiential accounts that incorporates context without reliance on epistemological assumptions. Using phenomenology and holism as its hermeneutical basis, this method discloses emic beliefs about experience in mystic traditions, which are used as interpretive guides. By organizing mystic notions about experience into two categories – ontology and epistemology – I recommend a method for the comparison of experiential accounts that focuses on mystic texts themselves, rather than being guided by ulterior philosophical assumptions.

Using this method, I compare mystic texts and experiential accounts in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. This comparison reveals a number of suggestive cross-cultural similarities. Mystics in these traditions commonly describe mystical experience as an encounter premised upon an “ontological resonance” – the notion that, at a fundamental level, the mystic and that which he takes to be of ultimate value share a basic similarity or linkage in metaphysical structure. This ontological resonance subverts or blurs the subject/object distinction central to modern Western epistemology. Mystics in these traditions also commonly describe experience as non-conceptual, non-linguistic, and direct or unmediated. Because these similarities transcend boundaries of context, they suggest that interpretation cannot be guided by the assumption that context delimits the possible forms of mystical experience, or ensures that different experiential accounts will not share important similarities.