• Revision:Mysticism and near death experiences

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Mystical Experience

The work “mystical” originates from the ancient Greek root word “mu” which can be translated as to close or to hide. The Greeks used the word mystical to refer to the mystery religions, where the initiated gained access to knowledge of divine things, however the initiated were not allowed to share this knowledge with the uninitiated. Therefore, mystical experiences are associated with people who have had direct and intimate experiences of God.

Rudolf Otto

In his book The Idea of the Holy described a mystical experience as "mysterium tremendum et fascinans"

"Mysterium" = the aspect of the holy which is entirely unknown and unapproachable by humans. God is wholly other, in that the holy is transcendent and beyond human understanding. The recipient is often left in blank wonder and amazement.

"Tremendum" shares a root with the word "tremor" which can be translated as the emotion fear. This fear is not of something material, but rather can be comparable to the fear of a ghost; which we know will not hurt us physically; however we are afraid of what we do not know and can never fully comprehend. "Tremendum" =the deep sense of awe generated in the recipient of the holy. There is also the terror, and absolute inapproachability of the holy, in addition to the feat of the "wrath" of the "living" God. There is a sense of one's own nothingness in contrast to the majestic power of the holy. eg Simon Peter's words to Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish expresses this, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8).

"Fasinans" = the recipient feels unable to drag itself away from the holy. There is a sense of a potent charm of the experience, the attractiveness of the holy in spite of the fear and terror.

Because of this, Otto states how religion must be totally separate from the human world, and this awesome power is totally unknowable to humans. Being in the presence of such an awesome power is called numinous. The "numinous" = the "non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self", which is an extraordinary experience with an awesome power which can be though of as God. Only in the presence of this awesome power which is totally separate from the human world can the numinous be experienced.

William James

In his "Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902) defines mystical experience as having 4 characteristics.

1) Ineffability

  • The experience is indescribable through conventional means of communication, as human vocabulary does not suffice.
  • The experience defies expression.
  • Its quality must be directly experience, it cannot be imparted to transferred to others.

“One must have musical ears to know the value of a symphony; one must have been in love one's self to understand a lover's state of mind. Lacking the heart or ear, we cannot interpret the musician or the lover justly, and are even likely to consider him weak-minded or absurd.”

2) Noetic

  • The experience gives insight and knowledge to the recipient of the experience, which is unattainable by the intellect alone.
  • eg Blaise Paul “Fire, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scientists. God of Jesus Christ. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.”
  • This feeling of insight cannot be explained by logic, as it is felt on an intuitive, non-rational level, and has profound forces of certainty and reality. The subject is overwhelmingly aware of the presence of the divine, experiencing feelings of being utterly swept up in the presence of God.

3) Transiency

  • The experience is short lived although it may increase in duration as the mystic becomes more proficient and experienced.
  • Saint Teresa of Avila = "In the orison of union, the soul is fully awake as regards God, but wholly asleep as regards things of this world and in respect of herself... she is utterly dead to the things of the world and lives solely in God.... Thus does God, when he raises a soul to union with himself, suspend the natural action of all her faculties. She neither sees, hears, nor understands, so long as she is united with God. But this time is always short, and it seems even shorter than it is. God establishes himself in the interior of this soul in such a way, that when she returns to herself, it is wholly impossible for her to doubt that she has been in God, and God in her.”

4) Passivity

  • Whilst the mystic can prepare for a mystical experience through a number of efforts (or example, praying, fasting etc... during the experience, the person feels held by a superior power. This can induce alternative personality (eg prophetic speech, automatic writing etc...) However once returned to their normal state, the mystic may have no recollection of this.

W. T. Stace

  • "One may be called extrovertive mystical experience, the other introvertive mystical experience. Both are apprehensions of the One, but they reach it in different ways.”
  • Extrovertive experience = the mystic looks outward and through the physical senses into the eternal world. The external world is transfigured in such a way that the Unity shines through them.
  • Introvertive experience =the mystic turns inward, introspectively, and finds the One at the bottom of the self, at the bottom of human personality. The mystic perceives his oneness with the divine.
  • Introvertive is purest form of a mystical experience, according to Stace, as it is non-sensual and non-intellectual, where the empirical consciousness is suppressed. It is cross-cultural and that the essence of this experience is undifferentiated unity, though Stace sees this interpreted differently in varying cultures and religions.

Nature of Near Death Experiences

  • One gains a new found faith or renewed faith
  • Changed life
  • An instant knowledge gained
  • E.g. Blaise Pascal (17thC) Neuilly Bridge “G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, G-d of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars… I will not forget thy word. Amen."

  • Strange sounds
  • Peace and painlessness
  • Out-of-body experiences
  • Passing through a tunnel
  • Rising to the heavens
  • People of importance
  • Feeling loved
  • Life review
  • Reluctance to return

(From Raymond Moody's 9 - (20thC)

  1. Peace
  2. Separation from body
  3. Darkness
  4. Bright light
  5. entering light

(Kenneth Ring's (20thC) 5 - from most frequent to least frequent)

W.T. Stace (20thC) – introvert /extrovert

Authenticity of Mystical Experiences

Swinburne’s (20thC) principle of testimony and credulity

  • Testimony: we should believe, unless there is a good reason not to
  • Credulity: we should believe, unless 1) subject unreliable, 2) perceptions were shown to be false, 3) evidence that experience did not exist or 3) if experience can be accounted for in another way

Ockhams’s razor

ceteris paribus – simplest explanation is best

Sigmund Freud (19th/20thC)

  • Religious experience is a reaction to the hostile world
  • We seek a father figure in our lives and this leads us to project an image G-d who is able to provide us with security.

However, people may not need a father figure – this might be an inbuilt mechanism programmed by G-d in order to bring us closer to him.

Karl Marx (19thC)

  • Society has two groups – the working class (proletariat) +the ruling class or (bourgeoisie.)
  • Marx defined religion as the “opiate of the masses,” - dulls pain of oppression for the proletariat
  • “People can’t really be happy until the abolition of the illusion of religion”
  • Mystical experiences are the outward manifestations of drug induced state.

Other problems

  1. experiences are not public or repeatable – very personal
  2. subject is mistaken
  3. Why doesn’t everyone have a religious experience
  4. difficult to define death
  5. indescribable nature
  6. contradicting experiences


These notes are aimed at OCR A Level Religious Studies students for the synoptic paper.

Originally posted by topfour on TSR Forums.

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