Tasting God

October 1993By Brendan Sweetman

Brendan Sweetman is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, Missouri.

Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism.  By Nelson Pike. Cornell University Press. 224 pages. $24.95.

The precise nature of mystical experience and, by extension, of religious experience in general has become a significant issue in contemporary philosophy of religion in the light of the dissatisfaction with the tra­ditional Thomistic approach to the existence of God. Many phi­losophers now appeal to religious experience as a way of justifying the rationality of belief in God. In this respect, Nelson Pike's new study of mysticism is timely, and important for the contemporary debate.

Two main questions recur in the discussion on mysticism: (1) What exactly is the nature of a mystical experience? (2) What evidence do mystical experiences provide for the existence of God? In this book, Pike deals almost ex­clusively with the first question. Yet, interestingly, his response to that question has significant im­plications for how one should ap­proach the second question. In particular, it seriously under­mines some prominent contem­porary responses to the second question -- viz., those of Walter Stace, William Forgie, Stephen Katz, and R. C. Zaehner -- which hold some variant of the view that mystical experiences are unreli­able and of little help to us in the search for evidence for God's existence. Thus, although Pike is not concerned with the epistemo­logical status of mystical experi­ence but only with phenomeno­logical descriptions of it, his work is original and valuable.

The primary aim of the book is to provide phenomenological analyses of the several states of mystic union reported in the Christian tradition. Pike believes that the phenomenological mes­sage of the "primary mystics" of the Christian tradition is not well represented in the current litera­ture. His analysis of the three main "states of mystic union" -- the prayer of Quiet, the prayer of Union, and the prayer of Rapture -- goes a long way to rectifying this imbalance. Pike provides a detailed and clear textual analysis of the work of the major pri­mary mystics: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, John of Ruysbroeck, and Bernard of Clairvaux, along with several lesser figures.

Pike's main conclusions about the three states of mystic union are well supported. He ar­gues that in the prayer of Quiet, God and the soul are only "close," whereas in full Union, and in the culmination stage of Rapture, God and the soul are in direct contact -- usually in mutual embrace. In the prayer of Quiet and in full Union, the encounter between God and the soul takes place in the soul, whereas in Rap­ture it takes place in "another world." The three states also in­volve a wide variety of spiritual sensations, such as touch and taste, and are accompanied by positive emotional reactions on the part of the mystic, such as "bliss," "peace," and "passion." Pike also concludes that full Union and Rapture sometimes reach a mystical peak where involvement with God becomes so intimate that the experiencing mystic loses track of the dis­tinction between self and God. All these experiences are "infused" by God, and do not result from any achievement on the part of the mystic. Pike provides a convinc­ing account of the phenomeno­logical content of mystical expe­riences.

For many the interesting question raised by such exper­iences is of course whether or not they can be said to be encounters with God. Stace and Zaehner claim that the mystic does not in fact experience God at all. Rather, because he is antecedently committed to a theistic worldview, he interprets what is in fact a nontheistic experience in a theistic way. Pike attempts to show (which, for me, he does quite convincingly) that such a view is not based on an accurate phenomenological description of the experiences actually reported by the mystics. According to Pike, the descriptions offered by the mystics have such diverse ele­ments -- e.g., including descrip­tions of the smell, taste, and so forth, of God -- that it is very unlikely that the mystic is sim­ply interpreting some prior, nontheistic experience. It is much more likely that the expe­rience itself is theistic. One of the main theses of Pike's book is that when we consider carefully the descriptions provided by the mys­tics, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that mystical experi­ence is phenomenologically the­istic. However, this does not nec­essarily mean that the mystic ac­tually experiences God. It means only that the experience of the mystic has genuine subject/object structure.

Forgie denies the possibility of theistic experience by arguing that the mystic can never be certain that it is God he is experi­encing. Pike again does a con­vincing job of showing that this view is based on prior theorizing about epistemology, rather than on an accurate phenomenologi­cal description of the various mystical experiences. Forgie's view may have ample warrant as a piece of epistemology, but it is not, Pike argues, an accurate de­scription of the phenomenolog­ical facts of mystical experience.

The epistemological ques­tion of whether the mystic actu­ally has an experience of God -- or of whether the phenomenon of mysticism supports the ratio­nality of belief in God -- is not addressed by Pike. This is disap­pointing, because the real con­cern of Stace and the others, which forms the basis of their dis­pute with Pike, is the epis­temological status of mystical experiences. But Pike does show that their various responses to this question are not based on accurate phenomenological descriptions of mystical experiences, and suffer ac­cordingly. Pike also shows that close phenomenological description of the mystical experiences will be imperative in any debate about their epistemological status. And this is significant.

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