Our Need for Religious Experience: Part 3, The Marks of Mysticism

Faith, I've been arguing, is sustained by religious experience, bumping into God from time to time.

But isn't that the very thing we struggle with in a secular, disenchanted age? It's not that we are dismissing the value and importance of these experiences, it's that we just aren't having these experiences in the first place. So facing that void, we're left to create other foundations for faith, things like ethics and politics.

In light of that possible response I'd like to use this post to argue that most of us are awash in religious experiences. These experiences really aren't all that rare if you know what you're looking for.

To illustrate this I'd like to go back to William James, his chapter on mysticism in The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Mystical experiences are the quintessential examples of religious experience. And in his wide-ranging survey of these experiences James argues that there are four characteristic marks of mystical experiences:
1. Ineffability
Mystical experiences are difficult to capture and describe with words.

2. Noetic Quality
The definition of "noetic" is "relating to the intellect," from the Greek "to perceive." Mystical experiences are experienced as experiences of insight, revelation, and knowledge. A change in perception occurs. Scales fall from our eyes. We are enlightened and woke.

3. Transiency
Mystical experiences are fleeting and short-lived.

4. Passivity
Mystical experience happen to us. They act on us. We receive or surrender to them. They interrupt us. We feel, in the words of James, "grasped and held by a superior power."
Having set out these four marks of mystical experiences, James goes on to show how common these experiences are. He starts by reflecting upon those moments in our lives where we struck by an deep insight. We say to ourselves, "Now I understand what people have been talking about when they say..." We've been illuminated. We see things more clearly or deeply. We're interrupted by profundity. Often these insights occur through art, literature and music.

If you ponder the four characteristics above I bet you've had lots of mystical experiences in your life, large and small.

My point here is that mystical, religious experiences are more common than we think. If you know what you're looking for.

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