David Bruce (born 1954): Mystical Experiences

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Are mystical experiences common?

It wouldn’t seem so; however, Andrew Greeley reported in “Mysticism Goes Mainstream,” an article published in the January-February 1987 issue of American Healththat “a full 35% of Americans reported they had had a mystical experience: feeling ‘very close to a powerful, spiritual force that seems to lift you out of yourself.’ And one seventh of those who have had such experiences — 5% of the whole population — have literally been ‘bathed in light’ like the Apostle Paul.”

Apparently, mystical experiences are common. If so, then why aren’t we hearing more about them? Why aren’t they being talked about more?

One possible answer, of course, is that they are being talked about, though maybe not to you or me. Chances are, a Christian who has had a mystical experience would be willing to talk about it to another Christian. Thus, I wouldn’t be surprised if those who are known to be religious — a priest or nun, for example — have heard other people talk about their mystical experiences.

In addition, if mystical experiences are being talked about, the people who have experienced them are probably relating them only to very close friends. In his book Everyday Ethics, philosopher Joshua Halberstam points out that Fritz Perls of Esalen fame has identified three levels of conversation. The first level is “chicken-talk,” talk that is “small, light, and easy.” As examples of questions at this level, Halberstam cites “Seen any good movies lately?” and “Been working hard?” The next level is “bull-talk,” in which “we exchange genuine information and our questions are personal.” As examples of questions at this level, Halberstam cites “Is your work satisfying?” and “Are you happy?” The deepest level is “elephant-talk,” in which “the content is weighty, and the questions are accompanied by the body language of dramatic gestures.” As an example of a question at this level, Halberstam cites “What do you meanby happiness?” Elephant-talk most likely will not be engaged in between people who are not intimates, and I imagine that talk of mystical experiences falls into the category of elephant-talk.

So, when talk of mystical experiences occurs, it probably occurs between intimates, particularly intimates who are both known to be religious.

Anyway, most of the time people are silent about their mystical experiences. There are probably many reasons why this is so — certainly people are afraid of not being believed. Here are some probable reasons why people do not often speak of their mystical experiences:

1) We live in the age of science. Science has been very successful, and we see evidence of that success in the many wonderful inventions around us: electric lights, stereos, televisions, radios, personal computers, etc. One assumption made by science is not to posit the existence of any supernatural (that is, outside of nature) being. A scientist would probably interpret a mystical experience as a psychological problem.

2) Sometimes, mystical experiences can be interpreted as a sign of insanity. Occasionally, people will hear voices telling them to do strange things, such as to take their children to the top of a high building and jump. Of course, when they jump, they do not float gently to the ground safe in the hands of angels; instead, they are seriously injured or killed. Many people in mental institutions think God speaks to them.

3) Some people such as some television evangelists who have claimed to have had mystical experiences seem to be charlatans. Both Leroy Jenkins and Jim Bakker have spent time in jail. Oral Roberts claimed that unless he raised a large amount of money, God had told him that he would be taken to heaven. I remember that syndicated columnist Mike Royko wrote a column urging people not to give money to Roberts on the basis that if Roberts’ prediction came true and he was taken into heaven, this would cause a great religious revival — something Roberts presumably would be in favor of. In addition, there’s an interesting book titled The Faith Healersby James Randi that exposes some of the tricks of the faith healers.

4) Speaking of newspaper reporters such as Mike Royko, if a person went to a newspaper office and wanted a reporter to write about a mystical experience that person had had, chances are he would be dismissed as a kook. A few mystical experiences make it into newspapers, but usually they are reported on for their entertainment value. For example, sometimes people believe they see images of the Virgin Mary in the sky or other places. Cartoonist Berkeley Breathed of Bloom Countyfame made fun of these people by having one of his characters see the image of Elvis in the mildew growing in her bathroom.

5) One characteristic of mystical experiences is that they are ineffable or indescribable. Most people are not notably articulate, and mystical experiences are such that they cannot be fully articulated. No wonder people don’t often speak of their mystical experiences.

6) Finally, most people who have had mystical experiences may be aware, as William James was, that “mystical states are … absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come” but that “no duty emanates from [mystical experiences] which should make it a duty for those who stand outside of them to accept their revelations uncritically.” In other words, mystical experiences are a source of revelation only for those experiencing them, and those who have not experienced them have no duty to listen to those who have. Why should I listen to what cult leader David Koresh says he has learned from his conversations with God? Of course, even when a sincerely religious person has had a real mystical experience, that experience has no force for me because I was not the one who experienced it.

Note: This short essay summarizes material found in various editions of David Stewart’s Exploring the Philosophy of Religion.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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