Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism
By Nelson Pike
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Review Author: Brendan Sweetman
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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