1. Explain what is meant by the term “Mysticism”, giving appropriate examples to illustrate your answer
1. “It is impossible to accept mystical experiences because of the lack of evidence” – Evaluate this view
a) Mysticism simply refers to the spirituality of the direct experience of God, with those who claim to have had mystical experiences to be at one with the transcendent God, not distinct but intertwined and received directly, with voices or visions being shown to them. The word “Mystic” itself derives from the greek word meaning “close”, of which Dr. Margaret Smith believes is significantly connected to mysticism, stating that it implies secrecy and the closing of the mind to earthly distractions in receiving the divine knowledge. Christianity and mysticism is all about the transforming union between man and God, as Jesus proclaimed “I and the father are one”, the christian mystic is to become at one with Christ. These are the core ideas behind mysticism and mystical experiences, the oneness and wholly with God sense, opposing the more singular “numinous” experiences which revolves around the sense of being in the presence of a great and awesome power, yet remaining distinctly separate from it.
William James, a twentieth century American philosopher who played a huge part in the breakdown and psychology of religion, attempted to devise mysticism into four basic features he noticed that were consistent; “Ineffability”, in which the individual isn’t able to describe his experience in words. “Noetic Quality”, revelations brought through by the authoritative and absolute and not in the way we learn about the physical world, and carry a sense of authority afterwards. “Transient”, where the mystical states cannot be sustained for long, but the effects do however last a lot longer. And finally, “Passivity”, in which the individual finds themselves being controlled by God to such an extreme extent, that they are sometimes overwhelmed and even an assumption of a different persona.
A famous example of a Mystical experience, in which we can identify James’ ways above, is the case of Saint Marie-Bernarde Soubirous, a French peasant girl who caused great controversy when she claimed to have seen the virgin Mary 18 times in Lourdes, France. Her life wasn’t the most fortunate, having been born into squalor with health problems such as Asthma, working extremely hard throughout her life and dying at the young age of 35. At 14, however, while working at Massabielle with her sister she saw an apparition, finding it “hard to describe” afterwards, which clearly shows signs of Ineffability.
On the sixteenth time experiencing the mysticism we see signs of Noetic quality, when she received the name “Immaculate conception” (of which she knew nothing about due to the fact she was illiterate and uneducated), but on consulting her priest, he instantly knew what it meant. Transiency was also shown throughout all her experiences when she would instantly return to her menial work directly following her hugely awesome and significant experiences.
b) “It is impossible to accept mystical experiences because of the lack of evidence”
– There will always be opposing views and questions to the credibility of mysticism for a variety of different reasons. Firstly, some may argue that there is no one to verify the experiences claimed, which goes towards any other form of singular religious experience. For example, as discussed in the Marie-Bernarde Soubirous case study in question 4, there was no one to distinctively confirm her visions and may be her imagination for all anyone knows. However, in opposing this criticism, the noetic quality of her experiences showed that she was able to tell her priest something that she could never have known and did not know otherwise but that her priest could relate to.
Some may also argue that a person may become so emotionally and psychologically engrossed in their imagination that they convince themselves that what might not be real is real. Similarly there are the effects of drugs and alcohol which could cause chemical imbalances in the brain, resulting in a wide range of delusional thoughts and over exaggerations that could cause the individual (who may already hold strong religious beliefs) to convince themselves that what they believe happened is real, when in actual fact, it is merely the substances getting the better of you.
Of course, there is always the possibility of the person faking a religious experience to make religious, or any other type of gains in their favor. This is why even some important religious figures remain skeptical of all claims, not wanting to be taken advantage of.
Some oppose this, believing that those who claim to have experienced Mysticism should be believed until there is strong evidence against them, and that following experiences the believers show a much higher level of commitment to their Faith and practicing religion.