Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mystical "experience of unity" in unexpected places

Some people who study mystical experiences have worked to identify the key characteristics of such an experience. What makes an experience "mystical", and what do they have in common? While the definitions are not always fully agreed on by all people, one of the commonly-mentioned features of mystical experience is an "experience of unity".* (Hinman, The Trace of God, p 13). In this experience of unity, "we both become one with the Absolute, and we become aware of our oneness" (Hinman, p13 quoting James).

Is there any real sense in which we are one with the Absolute?

I'd invite the Christian reader to consider a selection from a passage well-known to most Christians as "the parable of the sheep and the goats" (Matthew 25). The Son of Man comes in power with the angels to judge the world. He explains to the blessed: "I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink ..." (and so forth). He explains to the condemned, "I was hungry and you did not feed me, thirsty and you did not give me a drink ..." (and so forth). Both groups react with complete puzzlement. This is the Divine Judge! When have they ever seen him? When has he ever been in need? Both groups have a similar reaction: "When did we ever see you hungry? ... When did we ever see you thirsty?" And the ultimate surprise for both groups: "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (or "did not" in the relevant places).

Here is the "experience of unity" turned on its head. It is not a tale of the mystic having a grand moment in which he experiences (or imagines) unity with the Divine. It is the Divine saying that it's true, that there is a unity between the Divine and us that is deeper than we imagine. "If you welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or the prisoner, you have done it for me." And they have "done it for him" more than in the shallow sense that the Divine was merely the motivation while another person received the benefit. No, the Divine claims to be the one who was hungry or thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner, to whom we show kindness ... or to whom we do not. If the "experience of unity" seeks to be grounded in something that people trust, then the words of Jesus show us how that "experience of unity" looks from the other side of the divide. He also explains how that unity means that we cannot look at our neighbor with indifference.

Another unexpected place where I ran across the "experience of unity" lately was at a blog-neighbor's post on Gaps at the Dinner Table (in which he and some other physicists had dinner, and their conversation turned to God-of-the-Gaps v. Multiverse-of-the-Gaps). One of the dinner companions mentioned "that Monotheism is the ultimate example of a unification hypothesis—explaining diverse things in Nature based on the operation of a single principle." There is a view on which, believing that monotheism is true, we would not be surprised that a transcendent / divine experience often reveals the underlying unity of things. It's a case where, on the premise that monotheism is true, we could reasonably expect an experience of the divine to reveal an underlying unity. 

* There is some suggestion to elevate the "experience of unity" to the one essential feature of mysticism, but I'm not convinced that is warranted. The Lukoff study cited (Hinman, p 14) identifies common characteristics of mystical experiences in a fairly comprehensive way without mentioning an experience of unity. I wonder if the experience of unity is similar to the role of nature in mystical experiences: a common feature, but not an essential one.


Kevin Knox said...

Hello WF. Long time no see, but I've caught up on this series of yours. I know it's pre-recorded, and I'm curious where you end up.

Given your format, it's a little early for questions, but I'll throw the big one out I'm going to be looking for. I was reared in an ecstatic denomination - tongues, etc. I eventually discovered there were real Christians were not ecstatic, and eventually reconciled their position with my own when I learned all religions have an ecstatic denomination or two. There was nothing convincingly Christian in the act of speaking in tongues. It's a human event.

8 years after I left the ecstatic denomination, I joined a mystical non-denomination with the full centering/silence practice. I quickly learned every religion had its own mystical denomination as well.

The same goes for fundamentalist, dogmatic, joyful, and otherwise human. I eventually gave up on finding a religious experience unique to Christianity. Shortly thereafter I was forced to deal with the big question. If there's no experiential uniqueness to Christianity, is there any truth uniqueness to it?

I'll assume you share your wrestling with that one in a couple months, but I'll throw the question out anyway.

Good to see you again. :-)

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Kevin

Good to see you around. Hope all is going well for you & yours.

On the experiences -- ecstatic, mystical, centering, silence, all that, I take a couple of things for granted:

1) There's only one God and he's universal;
2) There's only one human nature and it's universal.

So I figure there will be common things that connect us all, and common threads to our religious experience.

But if you want my take on "What is unique about Christianity?" the index is here:

Or if you're into diagrams -- I get into diagram kicks sometimes -- there is one you might enjoy here, Venn diagram comparing the New Testament, the Tao te Ching, the Analects, and the Qur'an.

I'd be curious what you make of all that.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Kevin Knox said...

I read these a couple weeks ago, and have kept them in the back of my head. I'm not at all surprised to see you consider Jesus the unique expression of the unique God, and all other religions to be something less. I'm not sure it directly addresses my question, but it's all good stuff.

Your Venn diagram was quite fascinating, though, and lands right in the middle of the question. All 4 religions focus on "called, heaven, people, and word." Those 4 words would outline a pretty good Christian sermon, but they'd evidently make a pretty good sermon in any of the religions examined. Even the scale of the diagram brings focus to my question. All four ovals are equally sized and overlap equally. It visually begs Christians to ask whether there's anything so unique about "us," or to justify our negative expectations for those inhabiting the other three ovals.

If there's no experiential uniqueness to Christianity, it's hard to say there's any truth uniqueness. Jesus burst into the world, and was unique in countless axes. Are we not similarly unique in some way?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Kevin

I'm trying to figure out where it is we're not understanding each other.

I should mention on the diagram -- I had fun with that, no doubt, & I hope it's useful, but my Venn skills aren't all that, & if I ever do another edition of the diagrams I'd hope for the ovals to be more representative of the size of the texts, and actually let you see the different prevalence/emphasis ... yada yada ... point being the diagrams show some things but not others b/c my Venn skills are iffy. I think the real upshot of that Venn diagram is that there is a thing called "religion", and what religion has in common is right there. (Kind of like what restaurants have in common is food for sale probably with menus, and what books have in common is pages and (typically) words ... So the Venn diagram is what religions have in common, to some extent. It doesn't mean they're all interchangeable ... but that they're similar enough that it's meaningful for them to be grouped together.)

As Christians, I don't think we should have negative expectations of ... how did you put it ... "those inhabiting the other three ovals". I've met Christians who seem to think so, & it disappoints me. (I'm really fond of the Tao Te Ching, & the Analects, btw.) That's not the same as saying they're all the same.

If Jesus rose from the dead then it matters to everyone who faces death. It's not a bludgeon to use against others, it's hope. Evangelism is explaining why Jesus' existence adds hope to the whole of human experience. If we use that to say mean things about ovals we don't understand, then we've gone wrong. If we love the good, we will respect it wherever we find it.

Let me know if I've communicated that well enough that it's making any sense there ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF