Can We Thematize Mysticism?

Louis Roy, O.P.

Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies, 21 (2003): 47-66

While claiming that their experience is ineffable, many mystics have talked about it. Some of them, such as Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross, have even written hundreds of pages describing, analyzing, and situating that experience. However, the vast majority of them have remained content to live with this paradox—speaking about the unspeakable—either unwilling to discuss it or incapable of explaining it intellectually.

Let us note the fact that mysticism is not a blank state of mind, a blackout, or a passing out. Mysticism involves consciousness and awareness. If mystical experience were not a conscious event, no human being would have ever talked about it. If it could not be recalled, no one would have been able to consider it as distinct from our common sense, scientific, or artistic endeavors. But if you regard mysticism as something different from those endeavors, then you make a statement that conveys a content, namely, a minimum of knowledge. It follows that mysticism is not entirely unknowable. Mystical consciousness is a kind of knowing, which our memory can store and which our intellectual curiosity may want to understand. And yet, it is a peculiar sort of knowing, a strange form of understanding, a higher wisdom, which seems to defy linguistic enunciation. As Thomas Merton puts it, “the mystical theologian faces the problem of saying what cannot really be said.”1

As a result, it is far from obvious that mysticism can be successfully brought to speech. Perhaps it is impossible to test the validity of religious accounts which are shaped by preconceptions and thus do not escape the subjectivistic idiosyncrasies of individual mystics as well as of their particular traditions. Perhaps it is impossible to distinguish between adequate and inadequate expressions.

In order to unravel this issue, I propose that we successively tackle six questions. First, among the available formulations of mystical experience, would it be helpful to distinguish two basic genres? Second, can we track the consequences of the various epistemologies operative in the study of mysticism? Third, what does the realm of mystical consciousness consist in? Fourth, what are the principal modern views on ineffability? Fifth, can mysticism be articulated? And sixth, if so, to what extent?

1. Expressions of mystical experience

When we take cognizance of the vast amount of mystical literature across human cultures, we notice that mystical consciousness is enunciable in some way. Even prior to any elaborate expression, there is a minimum that is always asserted. This minimum consists in the affirmation that mysticism is different from other, more familiar, kinds of consciousness: commonsense, artistic, scientific, historical, psychological, or philosophical.

A person may go farther than this bare minimum and begin to describe the mystical experience, as one confides in a friend or in a psychologist.2 Those who are at ease with symbols may evoke a transcendent experience in a poem, a story, a play, a dance, a musical piece, a painting, a sculpture, a temple endowed with architectural expressiveness, and so forth.3 Those who are concerned with dogmatic orthodoxy may sort out norms derived from their own religious tradition in order to confirm the truth of mystical experiences. Those who enjoy pursuing questions in a logical fashion may try to analyze the elements of mystical experience, subdivide it into phenomenological types, employ hermeneutical tools to disclose its meaning, or have recourse to epistemology so as to appraise its objective validity.

These various expressions fall into two basic genres. First, oral or written descriptions of experiences, which may display a definite literary beauty, or works of art which purport to convey the sense of the divine. And second, literary, historical, doctrinal, philosophical, or theological discussions of mystical texts or phenomena.

The first genre—the symbolic—conveys meaning by having recourse to images, comparisons, metaphors, and analogies, along with concrete events, details, circumstances, and allusions. Although it often possesses a general scope, symbolic meaning is embodied in the particular. The validity of these concrete forms of expression can be determined thanks to the traditional criteria for discernment, with which spiritual guides are conversant.

By contrast, the second genre—the systematic—which is theoretical, aims at directly presenting the universal and does so by defining a set of organically related concepts. This is what I will call thematization, that is, objectification, methodical knowledge, explanatory account. Assessing its desirability is the principal issue I want to take on in this essay. The complex theological status of the functional specialty that Lonergan calls ‘doctrines’ will not be tackled in this article, which will remain within the limits of the philosophy of religion. If I understand ‘doctrines’ correctly, it partakes of some characteristics of the symbolic and of some characteristics of the systematic, and thus plays the role of a transition between foundations and systematics.4

2. The consequences of various epistemologies in the study of mysticism

In the scholarly world of studies on mysticism, we find, either explicitly or implicitly, three fundamental views: naïve realism, idealism, and critical realism.5 Those in the first camp (who, of course, usually do not see themselves as naïve!) consider perception to be the paradigm of knowledge. They construe mystical experience not as sense perception, but as some sort of inner perception, immune from any interpretation. For them, the reality of mystical experience can be affirmed to the extent that it satisfies conditions similar to those found in sense perception. As an intellectual effort to confirm this authoritativeness, thematization merely consists in showing that it resembles sense perception.6

Partisans of the second camp accept the Kantian assertion that knowledge is intrinsically shaped by space and time as well as by the essential categories of human understanding. According to them, the reality of religious experience is the noumenon which remains outside the forms of intuition and categories of understanding and is, therefore, inaccessible and radically unknowable. For instance, Rudolf Otto extols what he calls the strictly ineffable ‘numinous’ and he drastically undervalues religious language, whose role is limited simply to evoke the unknown numinous. Yet, in an effort to avoid extreme idealism, he adopts a certain perceptualism as he speaks of a faculty which perceives the numinous.7 Friedrich Schleiermacher offers the same contradictory blend of idealism and perceptualism, although he avoids the mistake of postulating in us a distinctive faculty for the divine.8 Similarly, Karl Rahner considerably diminishes human knowing as he contends that the divine mystery will be unknown to us even in the beatific vision.9

The adherents of these two fundamental positions share something in common: conceptualism. Conceptualism means some sort of automatic imposition of concepts onto experience, without the mediation of inquiries or direct or reflective insights. For conceptualists there is no emanatio intelligibilis. It is almost a mechanical operation, by which we organize our obscurely pregiven thoughts.10 If you transfer this epistemological stance to mysticism—a transfer that strict empiricists would disapprove of, but that naïve realists and some Kantians would approve of—then the divine is reduced to what is religiously experienced, while confessional doctrines are valid only inasmuch as they reflect religious experience. Moreover, dogmas are likely to be downplayed as the results of a process of abstraction that presumably impoverishes the vivid direct contact with the mystery. In this framework there can hardly be a conceptual knowledge of religious reality that one would have good reasons to hold as true.

The third fundamental position is critical realism, grounded in the self-knowledge that makes adequate cognitional theory possible. What becomes of the concept in this epistemological account? The concept is the product of previous abstraction, that is, disregarding many irrelevant aspects in the data and singling out the important elements for a possible answer to a specific question.11 You get an insight when you detect the significant point that sheds light on an issue. Conceptualization follows insight as an elaboration of the relations grasped in the act of understanding. Far from being impoverishing, abstraction, insight, and conceptualization are enriching. In this intellectually vibrant context, thematization of mysticism can play a useful role, as we shall see.

3. Mystical consciousness as a realm of human experience

Nonetheless, even a sound cognitional theory does not guarantee that we can effectively reflect upon mysticism. We must take into consideration mysticism’s peculiar nature and honestly determine whether or not it is amenable to any form of objective study. So we still have to come to grips with additional questions, such as: Can we identify a domain for mysticism within the range of human experience? Or, to put it in a more provocative manner: what is it that we are either forbidden or permitted to talk about? Is it possible to outline the ‘what’ of mysticism? Is there a particular field which encompasses mystical events, experiences, or objects? Is mysticism a specific area within the overall spectrum of the knowable? Or does the originality of mysticism rather reside in the fact that it is not a part of ordinary human knowledge?

Bernard Lonergan distinguishes four realms of meaning: common sense, theory, interiority, and transcendence.12 Each of them corresponds to a specific mode of conscious and intentional operation. What gives rise to each basic mode of operation is an exigence, or a goal. So the goal of common sense is to act appropriately in our world of everyday interactions; the goal of theory is to relate systematically aspects of the known reality; the goal of interiority is self-knowledge; and the goal of transcendence is to respond to the offer of unrestricted love and meaning.

In the first two realms, we deal with objects, which are perceived as sense data, understood in insights, verified in judgments of fact, and affirmed in judgments of value. Such realities are either encountered (in the realm of common sense, namely, in the Lebenswelt, the ‘lived world’ of concrete feelings, apprehensions, decisions, and actions), or systematically interconnected by our mind (in the realm of theory, that is, in all the sciences, natural and social, as well as philosophy and theology).

In contrast to the first two realms, the other two realms deal, not with sense data, but with the data of human consciousness. Thus the third exigence—self-knowledge—opens up the realm of interiority, in which we identify our recurrent conscious acts and states. And the fourth exigence—adopting a stance with regard to what absolutely transcends us—ushers us into “the cloud of unknowing.”13 In this fourth realm—a second type of interiority—we are concerned with conscious states that are at the same time analogous to and different from the ordinary conscious states found in the first interiority and analyzed by cognitional theory.

This twofold self-knowledge (acquired in the first and in the second interiority) is based on a direct attentiveness to the data of our consciousness. The first two realms are characterized by the mediation (i.e., interpretation) of immediate sense data, whereas the other two realms stem from the mediation of immediate consciousness itself. Each of these latter realms—interiority and transcendence—involves a certain kind of immediacy, prior to becoming explicitly thematized.14 The awareness of that immediacy entails a shift to a new key, to which common sense and theory have no access.

To describe the fourth realm of meaning, Lonergan uses words such as ‘transcendence,’ ‘religious experience,’ and ‘religious interiority.’15 In light of this latter designation, I have called it the second interiority, to indicate that it underlies our subjectivity, namely, our first interiority. Let us also notice that by ‘transcendence,’ Lonergan means neither the Transcendent (God) nor other instances of self-transcendence. For him, the realm of transcendence designates full self-transcendence, where the “being in love with God” constitutes “the basic fulfilment of our conscious intentionality.”16

Moreover, for Lonergan, religious experience consists in “a conscious dynamic state of love, joy, peace,” which “is conscious without being known.”17 This definition of religious experience (which typifies the realm of transcendence) refers to a human state that in itself is not known. However, following Bernard McGinn’s remark that the term ‘consciousness’ is a more precise category than ‘experience,’ I propose that we rather speak of ‘mystical consciousness.’18

McGinn considers Christian mysticism in its primary sense as “an immediate consciousness of the presence of God” but also highlights the importance of observing its interconnectedness with the rest of human experience, as he writes: “everything that leads up to and prepares for this encounter [between God and the human], as well as all that flows from or is supposed to flow from it for the life of the individual in the belief community, is also mystical, even if in a secondary sense.” He adds, “the mystical element in Christianity is that part of its belief and practices that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God.”19

In light of McGinn’s suggestions, I propose a distinction between mysticism and mystical consciousness.20 The latter is the ‘religious experience’ (in Lonergan’s vocabulary) that makes up the core of the realm of transcendence. The former covers more ground: it includes not only mystical consciousness, but also the set of meanings and values that come both before and after mystical consciousness. As construed by its best experts, mysticism incorporates several interpretive contexts.21 Consequently it carries with it significant elements drawn from the realms of common sense, theory, and interiority. Needless to say, mystical consciousness may permeate these three other realms. In contrast to transcendent experiences, which are transitory, mystical consciousness tends to be pervasive and permanent.22 This is the reason why it can permeate all the rest of human life.

4. Modern Views on Ineffability

Let us now approach the main objection to the thematization of mystical consciousness. Given its peculiar nature, which is neither a matter of common sense nor a matter of theory, and hence not a knowledge as people normally understand it, should we not abandon the very idea of thematizing it?

I must stress that the thematization in question is about mystical consciousness, not about its ‘object’ or ‘objective,’ namely, God. The Neoplatonic tradition, both ancient and medieval, does not differentiate human language regarding God and human language regarding mysticism. Lonergan’s perceptive comments on the metaphysical rendering of Thomas Aquinas’s overall epistemology apply to the study of mysticism in particular.23 Although patristic and medieval literatures display wonderful expressions about mysticism, they are not sufficiently reflexive, that is, they do not explicitly reflect on religious experience as distinct from Christian doctrine in general.

With modernity, the interest in the human self becomes dominant. At first, several factors such as the disparagement of religion by the opponents of the churches and the mistrust of quietism by the Catholic institution seem to have precluded any non-polemical study of mysticism. It is only at the dawn of the nineteenth century, namely, with Schleiermacher, that we are offered a systematic account of religious experience. Although he rarely speaks of Mystizismus (which he sometimes rejects and sometimes accepts in a qualified manner),24 large sections of his Speeches, his Dialectic, and his Christian Faith have to do with what we would nowadays consider mysticism. Unfortunately, by failing to distinguish between two forms of prereflective consciousness, namely, between mystical consciousness and the consciousness that permeates all our states and acts, he does not ask to what extent the former might be objectified. Yet, because he sees a role in ‘objective consciousness,’ I would not place him among the proponents of utter ineffability.25

William James and Rudolf Otto are the chief Western proponents of the thesis that religious experience is irreducible to any sort of discourse. Among James’s four marks of any mystical experience, the first one is ‘ineffability.’ He asserts:

The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words. It follows from this that its quality must be directly experienced; it cannot be imparted or transferred to others. In this peculiarity mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.

Of course his work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, from which this quotation comes, is full of reports of mystical states. But the only role of such accounts consists in evoking the mystical states in the sensibility of those who read those texts. He continues:

No one can make clear to another who has never had a certain feeling, in what the quality or worth of it consists. 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.

All the same, in his second mark of mysticism, ‘noetic quality,’ James recognizes the presence of a certain ‘knowledge.’ Yet again, such intuitions are not amenable to any rational translation. “They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect.”26

Otto, who by and large appreciates The Varieties of Religious Experience, also adopts the thesis of ineffability. His version is more rigorous than that of James. He speaks of ‘the numinous,’ a term which comprises both mystical experience (the sense of the sacred) and the experienced reality (the Wholly Other). We seem to be back to the premodern lack of distinction previously mentioned. But in fact the context is different: it is Kantian. Otto’s numinous is as unknowable as Kant’s noumenon. Because we do not know the nature of the numinous, we cannot even introduce the distinction: experience/object of experience.

Despite this lack of distinction, Otto’s book evidences a modern focus on experience. And for him the experience of the numinous is unique, incomparable. Its “quite specific element … remains inexpressible … in the sense that it completely eludes apprehension in terms of concepts.”27 It can only be evoked for the reader thanks to a ‘schema’ or ‘ideogram’ whose function consists in making the numinous imaginable by being associated with something in the natural world. Still, this evocation has no scientific (or conceptual) validity, according to Otto’s Kantian epistemology.28

Another important thinker who discusses the problem of ineffability is W. T. Stace. In Mysticism and Philosophy, a work that is better argued than James’s and Otto’s books, he distinguishes between an inexpressible ‘pure experience’ and its many interpretations. He claims that ‘introvertive mysticism’ (finding ultimate Unity within the soul) is pure experience and therefore mysticism par excellence. On the other hand, ‘extrovertive mysticism’ (finding the One as shining through the multiplicity of external material objects) is reducible to the former. Finally, ‘theistic mysticism,’ is heavily theory-laden and therefore is most remote from pure experience.29

As regards the status of our language regarding mystical consciousness, Stace must be praised for having distinguished two aspects of the issue. He successively asks: Is mystical experience beyond logic and hence paradoxical? And, is it beyond understanding and hence ineffable? He answers yes to his first question, and no to his second.

He tackles the first question in chapter 5 of his book. After trying to refute four theories devised to explain away the paradoxical nature of mystical writings, he settles for a division of human expression into two domains, the sphere of paradox and the sphere of logic. He concludes that it is not illogical, even for scholars who inevitably think according to the logical laws of ordinary consciousness (elsewhere called ‘sensory-intellectual,’ in contrast to mystical consciousness),30 to accept the fact that a part of our human experience stands above those laws. I agree with this latter statement, although not with his assertion that paradoxical phrasings cannot be translated into coherent ones. At stake is the validity of systematic language, as we shall see later. Yet if the British are right when they say that “the proof of a recipe is in the pudding,” I can refer to a recently published article, where I believe I have successfully articulated, in logical discourse, a few of Meister Eckhart’s paradoxical pronouncements.31

In his chapter 6 Stace tackles the issue of the alleged ineffability. Unfortunately he fails to distinguish language regarding religious experience from language regarding the object of that experience (God). Had he concentrated on the former, his treatment would have been less broad and probably more precise. Nevertheless, he makes a few important points.

He rightly claims that the mystics’ difficulty with words does not reside in the depth of their emotions or in the spiritual blindness of their readers. It is an intellectual difficulty, which consists in the incommensurability between their mystical consciousness and the common consciousness. Of course mystics successively partake of both kinds of consciousness. And as they express their experience, they cannot but utilize ordinary language, based on relating many terms, hence on multiplicity, to talk about their consciousness of a fundamental unity.

Another valuable contribution of Stace to the debate is his contention that mystical language cannot be entirely symbolic or metaphorical. Introducing a helpful distinction between meaningful and meaningless metaphors, he maintains that the meaningfulness of the metaphors depends upon ‘literal’ words. If not, we should ever be asking, “Metaphors for what?” and would be involved in an infinite regress. Symbolic language, Stace rightly asserts, must be grounded on some non-metaphorical apprehensions, however inadequately or awkwardly expressed. As examples of non-metaphorical words, he lists difference and similarity (or at times, causality) between the world of multiplicity and the world of unity, or between the universe and God. Stace points out that several mystics have recourse to both symbolic and literal terms. They go beyond metaphorical language every time they use abstract words such as ‘unity’ and conversely when they claim that, in their experience, ‘multiplicity’ is obliterated. He also gives as examples of literal concepts employed by mystics: ‘no distinctions,’ ‘void,’ ‘undifferentiated,’ ‘nothing,’ ‘nothingness,’ and several other terms.32

Lastly, taking his cue from Plotinus (in Ennead V.3.17), Stace notes that, during the experience itself, mystics are in a state of total ineffability. But afterwards, when the experience is remembered, they have recourse to words so as to contrast the two kinds of consciousness. In sum, Stace correctly states that the experience itself is above understanding, while it is possible to conceptualize it in our logical language. He remains vague, however, about the exact nature and extent of such thematization.

5. The Possibility of Thematization

In reply to James and Otto, the partisans of total ineffability, let us observe that, in order to persevere in meditation, mystics must make two judgments, a judgment of fact and a judgment of value, regarding their experience. The first one is, “this experience is unique, different from anything else”; the second is, “I need to be unconditionally faithful to this experience.” Notice that there is nothing paradoxical in these statements, which are expressed in plain idiom. Of course, the words in which these judgments are couched vary enormously from culture to culture. Even though countless mystics probably never share these judgments with other people, the fact that they had to utter them, however succinctly, as they talk to themselves, shows that mystical consciousness is never purely ineffable. As soon as mystical experience becomes self-aware, it comprises a kernel of meaning, an elementary knowing (as distinct from knowledge in Lonergan’s fuller sense, where some degree of elaboration is indispensable).

Still, many mystics stop here. They observe and recommend silence. Lao Tzu sternly states, “Those who know do not say; those who say do not know.”33 Is it advisable to follow their example and resist the temptation of loquacity? Could it be a sign of profound wisdom to reject the modern Western hubris of trying to objectify mysticism? Perhaps we should unmask this enterprise as an illusion and modestly confine systematic understanding to the sciences which deal with the finite universe, thus expelling philosophy and theology from that field. Perhaps we should rally to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s interdiction, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereon one must be silent.”34

If, on the one hand, the objection merely implies that any formulation is less rich than mystical consciousness itself and therefore should not be considered a substitute for it, we must concur. On the other hand, given what has been said about the enriching character of abstraction, we should not concede that the systematic handling is less rich in all respects. Yet the private character of an individual’s or a group’s experience can never be adequately rendered conceptually. Only the symbolic approach is capable of alluding to its uniqueness in a suggestive fashion. Still, even the symbolic remains at a remove from the private aspect of human experience.

This issue becomes intractable when interpreters of mysticism fall into the hermeneutical pitfall of lamenting the fact that human language, whether symbolic or conceptual, cannot literally reproduce the unique features of a specific experience as it happened. Such interpreters ignore the enriching character of expressions. Even at its symbolic stage, language suggests commonality, not pure privacy: its analogical resources allow its hearers or readers to have a share in the uniqueness of an event that is both particular and paradigmatic. Moreover, the systematic treatment can situate this particularity in a universally valid context, provided it employs a useful set of terms and relations.35

Several years ago, Paul Ricoeur noticed this difficulty:

My experience cannot directly become your experience. An event belonging to one stream of consciousness cannot be transferred as such into another stream of consciousness. Yet, nevertheless, something passes from me to you. Something is transferred from one sphere of life to another. This something is not the experience as experienced, but its meaning. Here is the miracle. The experience as experienced, as lived, remains private, but its sense, its meaning, becomes public. Communication in this way is the overcoming of the radical non-communicability of the lived experience as lived.36

There are natural transitions between mystical consciousness, its symbolic rendering, and systematic inquiry about it. Christians who have tasted the mystery are attuned to biblical statements such as “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30), “I am” (John 8:28), “Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor 6:17), or “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Their lectio divina oftentimes issues in spontaneous re-expressions of those most profound truths. In doing so, those listening to the word of God are gently introduced into webs of meaning. Moreover, many of those prayerful people raise certain questions, the answers to which necessitate a coherent frame of reference. Thus Paul Ricoeur writes that “le symbole donne à penser,” “the symbol gives rise to thought” (“to thinking” would be a better translation of “à penser”).37 Fides quaerens intellectum, “faith seeking understanding,” cannot rest idle.

6. The Scope of Thematization

Nowadays, many theologians urge that we remain content with what I have called the first genre of expressions—the artistic one.38 They insist that we should not transgress the boundaries of the symbolic. We ought to give up systematic thinking, they claim, because the latter necessarily loses the powerful allusiveness of the former. That the systematic cannot do what the symbolic can do, I readily admit. But why oppose the symbolic and the systematic? Do they not pursue distinct, complementary aims? I reported Stace’s observation that even mystics go beyond the symbolic as they use abstract words which imply systematic relations.

At any rate, those who reject the systematic contradict their own proposal, since their thesis and the reasons they adduce lie in the genre, not of symbolic expression, but of systematic thought itself. Most of the time, behind their stance we find a misrepresentation of systematic thought, which they construe in a conceptualistic manner. By contrast, if we adopt an epistemology that focuses on insights, we are in a position to apply it flexibly to the realm of the mystical. Then, systematic thematization will be experienced, not as impoverishing, but as enriching, because it will outline in a manner that is different from symbolic language, the significant in mystical consciousness and the point in any religious text. It can do this by pruning the unintended free associations to which non-systematic writings are prone and by highlighting the cognitional discoveries in an unequivocal way.

Let me repeat that the goal of both the symbolic and the systematic forms of expression is not to duplicate or replace mystical consciousness. The latter is immediate, since it belongs in the realm of the second interiority, whereas speech takes us into the world mediated by meaning. The challenge of thematization, then, consists in ‘theorizing,’ that is, in systematically understanding and relating our data of consciousness. At this stage, we try to situate the manifold aspects of our prelinguistic consciousness within the linguistic world mediated by meaning.

Lonergan clearly considers “the objectification . . . of religious experience” feasible.39 Yet neither Lonergan nor I in this essay have thematized it in any detail. I have been sharpening his “upper blade” in the “scissors movement with an upper blade in the categories and a lower blade in the data.”40 Elsewhere, however, I have brought some of the data of the lower blade in interaction with the transcultural base of the upper blade.41

In the limited context of this article, I will content myself with adding three methodological remarks. First, let us keep in mind the distinction, introduced in section 4, between reflection on God and reflection on mystical experience. While human talk about God is marked by a relative (not total) inadequacy, the study of our approach to God is marked by a relative (not total) adequacy. The fact that we cannot capture the divine mystery does not entail that mystical consciousness, which is our experience of that mystery, cannot be at least partially understood and appropriately expressed.

Second, given that both our science of interiority and our science of mysticism have to do with the data of consciousness, their basic terms must be, not metaphysical, as in medieval theology, but psychological, that is, derived from self-knowledge.42 Because of this intimate connection between the third and the fourth realm, I would submit that the philosophical self-knowledge gained in our exploration of interiority is a prerequisite for any talk about mysticism.43 If we successfully objectify the diverse facets of our ordinary consciousness, this achievement will help us successfully objectify the data of our mystical consciousness.

Third, since mystical consciousness appears to be utterly simple, having no parts enunciable as discrete objects, it follows that it would be futile to try and differentiate several aspects of it.44 Consequently, I would contend that its thematization amounts, not to analyzing it into constituent elements (since it has no constituent elements), but to relating it to the other realms of meaning. For example, we can examine how particular instances of common sense, theory, and interiority influence our awareness of mystical consciousness and are influenced by this awareness.


The study of mysticism needs the wide-ranging expressions offered by literature, the arts, religious studies, philosophy of religion, and theology. Our understanding of the mystical life does not come unilaterally from within. It is also guided, from without, by the great religious texts and traditions of humankind. The formulation of mystical consciousness is no luxury.45 We need it because we are human beings who want to understand the whole spectrum of our experience. We are endowed with what David Tracy calls a “blessed rage for order.”46 We live in a world mediated by meaning, hence in a world that proves intellectually satisfying insofar as the human mind finds order in it.

Moreover, the forms of expression that pertain to the symbolic genre can benefit enormously from sound philosophy and competent theology. Artists and writers need an adequate interpretive frame of reference for their expressions to be more than solipsistic ejaculations or wild speculations. Just compare, for example, Dante, John of the Cross or Gerald Manley Hopkins on the one hand, with William James, Aldous Huxley or Alan Watts on the other hand.

Finally, intelligent reflection upon mysticism is required not only if we are to situate it within our differentiated world of meaning, but also if we are to exercise discernment among the multitude of symbolic accounts, human studies, philosophies, and theologies that are competing in the effort to win adherents over to their respective views. The new science of mysticism which has progressively emerged in the course of the twentieth century and which might flower in the twenty-first will have to face the tall order of dialectically appraising varied counterpositions and of strengthening its fundamental position.

1 Thomas Merton, Foreword to William Johnston, The Mysticism of the Cloud of Unknowing: A Modern Interpretation (2nd ed., St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1975), viii.

2 As is well known, Teresa of Avila was requested by her spiritual counselors to write an extended and detailed report of her spiritual journey. More recently, the psychiatrist Karlfried Graf Dürckheim used to encourage his patients to talk about what he called their ‘experiences of Being.’ See Louis Roy, Le sentiment de transcendance, experience de Dieu? (Paris: Cerf, 2000), 14, 31, 129-130.

3 See Bernard J. F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 278: “artistically differentiated consciousness, especially if joined to religious sensibility, heightens religious expression.”

4 Method in Theology, 295-299, 306-308.

5 These categories come from Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 3 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992). A very helpful application of those categories to the field of mystical theory is made by James Robertson Price III, “The Objectivity of Mystical Truth Claims,” The Thomist 49 (1985): 81-98.

6 This position is exemplified in William J. Wainwright, Mysticism: A Study of Its Nature, Cognitive Value and Moral Implications (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981) and by William P. Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991). On the former, see Roy, “Wainwright, Maritain, and Aquinas on Transcendent Experiences,” The Thomist 54 (1990): 655-672.

7 On Otto, see Louis Roy, Transcendent Experiences: Phenomenology and Critique (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), chap. 7.

8 See Louis Roy, “Schleiermacher’s Epistemology,” Method: Journal of Lonergan Studies 16 (1998): 25-46.

9 See Louis Roy, “Karl Rahner’s Epistemology and its Implications for Theology,” in Lonergan Workshop, ed. Fred Lawrence, vol. 21 (Boston College, 2009).

10 See Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan, vol. 2 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997) and Roy, “Rahner’s Epistemology.”

11 Insight, 55. In his 1868 paper entitled “On a New List of Categories,” §5, Charles Sanders Peirce writes that “abstraction,” which he also calls “prescision,” requires “attention to one element and neglect of the other” (Peirce’s italics). See The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, ed. Nathan Houser and Christian Kloesel (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992-1998), vol. 1 (1867-1893), 2.

12 Method in Theology, 81-85, 257, 265-266; at 272-273, Lonergan adds two other realms of meaning, namely, scholarship and art: both use the language of common sense to pursue distinctive goals.

13 The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling, ed. William Johnston (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973). Notice the references to The Cloud in Method in Theology, 29, 266, 342.

14 For an amplification of Lonergan’s notion of ‘mediated immediacy,’ with references to Method in Theology and Insight, see Transcendent Experiences, 137-139 and 176-178.

15 See Method in Theology, 105-107, 266, 290; correspondingly, the third realm is called ‘other interiority’ (266).

16 Method in Theology, 105; see 342: “Such an orientation [to transcendent mystery] … is the climax of the self-transcending process ….”

17 Method in Theology, 106.

18 Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), xvii-xviii.

19 Foundations of Mysticism, xvi and xvii.

20 I am indebted to Rev. Harvey D. Egan, S.J., for this distinction and for useful comments on a previous draft of this article.

21 In addition to McGinn, see Harvey D. Egan, Christian Mysticism: The Future of a Tradition (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1990). On the other hand, it is unhelpful to include too much in the rubric ‘mysticism’; for all practical purposes, one then equates it with the whole spiritual life—the sole difference being that the mystic takes it more seriously than the average believer. Thus, in Mysticism (New York: Dutton, 1961), chap. 4, Evelyn Underhill adopts too broad a definition of mysticism. Egan is on better ground when he refuses to identify mysticism with “a Christian life of ascetical piety and devotion” or “simply love of God, the interior life, or Christian religious experience in general” (15).

22 For more on these distinctions, see Louis Roy, Mystical Consciousness: Western Perspectives and Dialogue with Japanese Thinkers, (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003), esp. Introduction.

23 See Verbum, esp. chap. 1, Conclusion.

24 See “Schleiermacher’s Epistemology,” 26, n. 4.

25 See Mystical Consciousness, chap. 6

26 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, ed. Martin E. Marty (New York: Longmans, Green, 1902; reprint, New York: Penguin, 1985), 380; or the critical edition in The Works of William James (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 302.

27 Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, trans. John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 2d ed., 1950), 5. In his Foreword to the first English edition, he uses the Latin phrase ‘Numen ineffabile.’

28 For a more detailed analysis, see Transcendent Experiences, chap. 7, esp. 109-116.

29 W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1960), chap. 1, section 5, and chap. 2, sections 5-8. For critical remarks on those three categories, see Roy, Transcendent Experiences, 167-168.

30 W. T. Stace, The Teachings of the Mystics: Being Selections from the Great Mystics and Mystical Writings (New York: A Mentor Book from New American Library, 1960), 12-14, 237-238.

31 See Louis Roy, “Some Japanese Interpretations of Meister Eckhart,” Studies in Interreligious Dialogue 11 (2001): 182-198.

32 Mysticism and Philosophy, 299-302.

33 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. D.C. Lau (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin Books, 1963), 117, §41.

34 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), Number 7; I have translated “darüber” by “thereon” instead of “thereof.”

35 On this issue, see Transcendent Experiences, 174; also Louis Roy, “Interpersonal Knowledge According to John Macmurray,” Modern Theology 5 (1989): 349-365, esp. 363.

36 Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 16.

37 Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 348.

38 For example, some proponents of narrative theology; for an excellent discussion, see Paul Griffiths, “The Limits of Narrative Theology,” in Faith and Narrative, ed. Keith E. Yandell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 217-236.

39 Method in Theology, 266.

40 Method in Theology, 293.

41 In Transcendent Experiences, chaps. 1, 2, 9, and 10, and in Mystical Consciousness, passim.

42 See Method in Theology, 343. In Heightened Consciousness: The Mystical Difference (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), David Granfield successfully builds upon this suggestion made by Lonergan.

43 See Mystical Consciousness, chaps. 1 and 2.

44 See the section “Price on Bare Consciousness,” in Mystical Consciousness, chap. 3.

45 In The Meaning of Christ: A Mahayana Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1989), John P. Keenan highlights the implications, for a new science of mysticism, of an approach based on both conscious interiority and listening to sacred scriptures. He finds a helpful interiority analysis in Chinese Yogacara Buddhism. While Keenan and I do not quite agree on the exact nature of thematization, we both affirm its usefulness. He writes, for example, “Asanga thematized awakening as undefiled purification ... attained within a consciousness that has become purified from passionate clinging and imaginative knowing” (216).

46 David Tracy, Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology, with a new Preface (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).