Cover image for Zen and the Unspeakable God: Comparative Interpretations of Mystical Experience By Jason N. Blum

Zen and the Unspeakable God

Comparative Interpretations of Mystical Experience

Jason N. Blum


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ISBN: 978-0-271-07079-7

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Zen and the Unspeakable God

Comparative Interpretations of Mystical Experience

Jason N. Blum

“Jason Blum has given us a novel and very interesting attempt to offer a new take on the elusive subject of religious experience. The book is useful in many ways: it organizes, and criticizes, the main epistemological assumptions made by theories of mystical experience, and it argues Blum’s case over several rigorously constructed chapters. Recommended to anyone interested in religious experience.”


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  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
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Zen and the Unspeakable God reevaluates how we study mystical experience. Forsaking the prescriptive epistemological box that has constrained the conversation for decades, ensuring that methodology has overshadowed subject matter, Jason Blum proposes a new interpretive approach—one that begins with a mystic’s own beliefs about the nature of mystical experience. Blum brings this approach to bear on the experiential accounts of three mystical exemplars: Meister Eckhart, Ibn al-ʿArabi, and Hui-neng. Through close readings of their texts, he uncovers the mystics’ own fundamental assumptions about transcendence and harnesses these as interpretive guides to their experiences.

The predominant theory-first path to interpretation has led to the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of individual mystical experiences and fostered specious conclusions about cross-cultural comparability among them. Blum’s hermeneutic invites the scholarly community to begin thinking about mystical experience in a new way—through the mystics’ eyes. Zen and the Unspeakable God offers a sampling of the provocative results of this technique and an explanation of its implications for theories of consciousness and our contemporary understanding of the nature of mystical experience.

“Jason Blum has given us a novel and very interesting attempt to offer a new take on the elusive subject of religious experience. The book is useful in many ways: it organizes, and criticizes, the main epistemological assumptions made by theories of mystical experience, and it argues Blum’s case over several rigorously constructed chapters. Recommended to anyone interested in religious experience.”
“Jason Blum illustrates fascinating similarities and parallels in the writings of Ibn al-ʿArabi, Meister Eckhart, and Hui-neng with respect to their views on the metaphysical structure between the self and ultimacy and on the nature of mystical knowing, despite obvious major differences among these influential mystics. This insightful comparative study develops with rigorous precision and clarity a novel theoretical framework for the study of comparative mysticism, one that shows much originality and promise.”
“Jason Blum’s phenomenological approach to the analysis of mystical experiences is both original and substantial, contributing to the recent debates about the nature of those experiences with a more subtle and holistic attitude. It will become an important part of the ongoing methodological controversies.”
“This is a gem of a book. It is well written, tightly organized, and succinct in its formulations. It manages to take three very sophisticated mystical authors from three very different cultures and put them into critical conversation both with one another and with the ontological assumptions of the contemporary academy. The result is a wonderful example of the new comparativism.”

Jason N. Blum is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the American University in Cairo.



Introduction: Theory vs. Interpretation

1 The Problem of Context

2 An Interpretive Approach

3 Ibn al-ʿArabi and the Names of God

4 Meister Eckhart and the Breaking-Through into the Quiet Desert

5 Hui-neng and the Stink of Zen

Conclusion: Theory and Interpretation


Works Consulted



Theory vs. Interpretation

Robert Forman and Jensine Andresen once described the theoretical debate that has suffused the study of mysticism for more than thirty years as a “methodological war.” In many ways, the description is apropos. Since the late 1970s, the study of mysticism has been dominated by unrelenting debate over the nature—both actual and possible—of human experience generally, and of mystical experience in particular. Although many of these studies of mysticism are replete with references to mystical texts and thinkers from numerous traditions, they are usually controlled by scholars’ own epistemological theories or models of experience; having first articulated a theory as to what mystical experience is and how it functions, that theory is then used as a template for analyzing mystics’ accounts of their experiences. In this sense, methodology has overshadowed subject matter, and the empirical study of texts describing mystical experience has been made subservient to prior philosophical commitments.

On one side of the debate is the contextualist position, which has been dominant in theoretical discussions of the study of mystical experience since it was endorsed in 1978 by Steven Katz. According to this position, which is based on an extrapolation of Kantian epistemology, experience is always influenced and constrained by prior experience, learning, and language. The mystic, in engaging on his course of study and pursuing his mystical path, immerses himself in the teachings, doctrines, and concepts of his religion; in this manner he builds up an array of expectations (often unintentionally and subconsciously) concerning what his mystical experience will be like, and when he finally does achieve his goal, it turns out to be precisely what one would expect. Because this perspective assumes that experience is essentially conceptual and linguistic in nature, it is inevitably shaped by ideas, concepts, and beliefs ingested from learning, culture, and historical setting. Context (broadly construed) thereby sets the boundaries and limits of experience. Mystical experiences, according to this perspective, are identical in structure to all other kinds of consciousness.

This position was initially articulated as a response to essentialism—the claim that all mystical experiences are fundamentally the same. The essentialist thesis was later revised, largely as a response to the critique offered by Katz and others, into a more nuanced form that became the primary counterposition to contextualism. This position, defended most prominently by Robert Forman, holds that while the contexualist thesis may describe the vast majority of experience, there is a certain subset of experiences—rare, but significant nonetheless—that partake of a different structure altogether. These experiences, which Forman refers to as “pure consciousness events,” are not fundamentally linguistic and conceptual in nature, nor are they influenced by context or prior expectation. They are essentially empty or “pure,” meaning that they are unsullied by any of the cognitive functions and background assumptions that contextualists claim shape all experience.

Since 1978, these two positions have represented the poles of debate in the study of mystical experience. Theoretical reflection on the study of mystical experience has therefore been framed in epistemological terms: two models for the structure of consciousness and nature of experience are offered, each is defended on the basis of certain philosophical traditions and schools of thought, and each is then deployed as a template for analyzing mystical experience. Theoretical scholarship on mystical experience has generally followed this epistemological trajectory for the past three decades, formulating the methodological question of how to study mystical experience as a matter of articulating and defending an independent model of consciousness, which is brought to experiential accounts as a kind of guide or template.

I argue that this epistemological framing of the problem has become the primary hindrance to progress in the study of mystical experience. Regardless of the particular theory employed, reliance on prior assumptions about the nature of consciousness and mystical experience runs the risk of obscuring those aspects of an experiential account that do not accord with it. As counterexamples, consider the following passages:

One way to describe the manner in which meaning is created in theosophical-theurgical Kabbalah is to assume that the authors and their readers understood specific terminology as symbolic. However, the term “symbol” itself requires more precise definition. . . . The way in which modern scholarship under the impact of [Gershom] Scholem, Johann Reuchlin and Franz Molitor understands symbols is informed by the German Romantic approach rather than by Kabbalah. . . . I have taken issue with this simplistic application of the German Romantic view of symbolism to the variegated literature of Kabbalists.

One of the first problems we face in investigating [Ibn al-ʿArabi’s] voluminous writings is how to deal with his interpretive biases. It would be tempting to try to leave aside his theorizing and go straight to his experience. But then we would be forced to interpret his interpretation in terms of our own theoretical categories, and there is no reason to suppose that such an approach would bring us any closer to an understanding of what is at issue.

In the first passage, Moshe Idel notes that much influential scholarship on Jewish mysticism has been designed with interpretive principles drawn from German romanticism, and that these principles therefore have no necessary relation or application to Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism). While symbols do play an undeniably important role in kabbalistic literature, Idel reminds us that there is no reason to expect that they function in a manner comparable to the role of symbols in German romanticism. Therefore, use of the latter to interpret the former, Idel argues, is unwarranted and potentially misleading. Rather, he suggests, kabbalistic symbolism must be interpreted according to the code represented by the ten sefiroth—an interpretive frame derived from Kabbalah itself.

Similarly, William Chittick suggests that in order to correctly understand the writings of the Sufi mystic and theologian Ibn al-ʿArabi, the scholar cannot ignore the native interpretive framework that suffuses Ibn al-ʿArabi’s writing, within which he explicates his understanding of mystical experience. Like Idel, Chittick recognizes that while it is possible to interpret Ibn al-ʿArabi according to any number of frameworks or “theoretical categories,” there is no reason to suppose that any such interpretation or framework would be appropriate for understanding Ibn al-ʿArabi’s texts. Rather, Chittick implies, the interpreter must examine both the reported mystical experience and the interpretive framework in which the experiential description is already immersed in order to understand either.

Both scholars recognize that mystic experiential accounts are already embedded in and permeated by their own philosophical assumptions. Mystic experiential accounts do not stand in a vacuum. Rather, they usually appear as part of a tradition of writing and thought that, significantly, includes its own assumptions about the nature of consciousness and the structure of mystical experience—its own inherent epistemology. And given the significant differences in historical context between most of history’s mystics and their contemporary interpreters, those assumptions are often vastly different from those with which today’s scholars operate. This indicates that the imposition of prior theoretical assumptions about the functionality of experience—whether those assumptions be contextualist, essentialist, or of any other sort—may do more harm than good in understanding mystics’ accounts of their experiences. Because mystic experiential accounts are typically already embedded in their own set of emic assumptions about the nature of experience, interpreting them through another set of (often divergent if not contradictory) assumptions runs the risk of obfuscating or misconstruing the original text.

Context does matter, and in order to understand the nature of mystical experience as described by its often eloquent and sometimes perplexing heralds, we must take context into account. In this sense, Katz’s contextualist thesis is correct. However, incorporating context into analysis by means of an epistemological theory that assumes that context sets parameters that necessarily constrain the content and character of experience is deeply problematic. At the very least, such an approach still fails to unearth the understanding of experience with which a given mystic operates, instead relying on its own epistemological theory in order to derive the nature of mystical experience. In doing so, the understanding of experience that is already embedded in an experiential account is obscured behind the interpreter’s own assumptions about the nature of consciousness, resulting in an analysis of mystical experience that reflects the interpreting scholar’s epistemological theory rather than the mystic’s own experience and understanding of it.

I propose a different approach. Improving the study of mystical experience is not a matter of articulating and applying the right epistemological theory or experiential model, but of developing an effective interpretive method that reveals the understanding of experience that is already embedded within specific experiential accounts. Rather than filter accounts of mystical experience through the philosophical assumptions of one or another etic theory or model of consciousness, I develop a hermeneutic approach—derived from phenomenology of religion and semantic holism—that unearths fundamental assumptions about experience that are already embedded in mystical thought and literature and harnesses these assumptions as interpretive guides.

I apply this approach to the experiential accounts of three mystics: Meister Eckhart, Ibn al-ʿArabi, and Hui-neng. This comparison reveals a number of intriguing similarities. I do not argue that all mystical experience is the same, or even necessarily similar. However, the commonalities that I reveal do represent similarities in mystical experience that transcend boundaries of culture, tradition, and historical context. These similarities demonstrate the dual errors of assuming that context necessarily delimits the boundaries of experience and that mystic experiential accounts arising in different traditions and contexts will not share important similarities. These similarities are suggestive for further study, and they have provocative implications for both the study of mystical experience and our own understanding of the nature of consciousness and experience in general.

Throughout the book, I employ a heuristic vocabulary that is intended to be sufficiently inclusive so as to facilitate cross-cultural comparison while presupposing as little as possible about mystical experience. To a degree, my adopted terms are therefore intentionally underdefined. I define a mystic experiential account as a report of an encounter between a mystic and ultimacy that is more intimate than that afforded by religious practice as performed by the larger, general religious community. Such accounts appear in a number of genres, including poetry, discursive first-person reports, and didactic texts. I use the term “ultimacy” as a placeholder for that which a mystic holds to be of greatest value. This typically takes the form of a deity (e.g., the Abrahamic god) or a state of being (nirvana) that is of paramount importance to a mystic’s tradition, practice, and theology. “Mysticism,” then, consists broadly of practices, texts, and beliefs related to, and experiential reports of, an encounter between a mystic and ultimacy. The term “encounter” signals any sort of interaction between a mystic and ultimacy; this often indicates an experience of union entailing some degree of identity between mystic and ultimacy, but it need not do so necessarily.

While this definition is designed to cast a broad net, I do not address a significant subset of mystical experiences: those described in terms of visual or auditory sensory impressions, such as visions of deities or saints or audible locutions attributed to the same. Such experiences clearly play an important role in mystical and religious traditions and have received ample scholarly treatment. They have not, however, been centrally relevant to the contemporary debate that is the impetus for this book. In the past thirty-plus years, debate over the interpretation of mystical experience has been focused on the controversial possibility of similarity or identity of experiences across traditional, cultural, and historical boundaries. Visions and locutions of deities and other religious entities have not played a significant role in this debate. To my knowledge, there are no extant reports of these types of sensory experiences that involve a mystic of one tradition encountering a deity or saint of another tradition of which the mystic did not have demonstrable previous knowledge. Such an instance would, of course, raise very interesting questions. However, because of the absence of any such examples, sensory mystical experiences have not been implicated in the methodological issues concerning epistemology and experience that have galvanized contemporary debate, with which this study is primarily concerned. Therefore, while their importance to mystical and religious traditions is undisputed, they remain outside the purview of this project.

Chapter 1 lays out the problem I seek to solve. I describe the contested role that context plays in contemporary debate about mystical experience, and focus on the work of Steven Katz, whose work largely initiated the epistemological trajectory of contemporary theoretical work on mystical experience, and whose position has been dominant for more than thirty years. Katz relies on a neo-Kantian epistemology that suggests that mystical experience is “overdetermined” by context; this, he claims, indicates that there will be “necessary” differences between mystical experiences in different traditions. This epistemology undergirds a causal explanatory relationship that Katz establishes between context and experience wherein the former delimits and powerfully influences the latter. Since his initial publication on mysticism in 1978, this epistemology has motivated Katz to argue systematically for various related theses concerning mystical experience.

Responses to Katz’s contextualist thesis have been varied, including both vehement criticism and enthusiastic endorsement. His historically sensitive method resonates with the general tenor of contemporary scholarship and postmodern philosophy, which emphasize the historically rooted nature of subjectivity, the fundamentally linguistic nature of conception, and the cultural conditioning that limits theory. Numerous scholars—many of whom have contributed to Katz’s edited volumes on the topic—have endorsed this approach. However, partially because of the unequivocal tone in which it is articulated, Katz’s work has also been the subject of sometimes strident criticism. The contextualist approach, while helpfully highlighting the importance of context for understanding mystical experience, results in a number of misleading claims concerning the nature of mystical experience and the possibility of similarities across historical and traditional boundaries. This analytical method assumes that mystic experiential accounts will be compatible with the basic doctrines of the religious traditions out of which they arise, and that therefore similarities between experiential accounts of different traditions should not occur. Pace Katz, my analysis of mystic experiential accounts suggests that both conclusions are mistaken, and that they seriously impair any approach to the study of mystical experience that accepts them as guiding assumptions.

Chapter 1 briefly considers some additional problems regarding the relationship Katz constructs between context and experience. Although context does play an important role in both the representation and interpretation of mystical experience, assuming a close explanatory relationship between context and experience is not a methodologically sound way to incorporate context into analysis. The use of context in studying mystical experience requires more careful theorization in order to be effective without importing prior conclusions that mislead analysis.

In chapter 2, I develop a new approach to the study of mystical experience that responds to these needs. This method fundamentally revises the study of mystical experience by shifting analysis from an epistemological paradigm to a hermeneutical one. Rather than base analysis on a model of experience or a theory about the nature of consciousness, my approach starts with a close reading of mystical literature itself that is designed to unearth the mystic’s own assumptions and beliefs about the nature of mystical experience. I begin by suggesting a theoretical bifurcation between interpretation and explanation. Whereas an explanation of a mystical experience typically proposes causal factors—examples could include God, psychosis, or a combination of contextual cues and self-suggestion—an interpretation of a mystical experience seeks instead to produce an account of an experience that unearths and accurately reflects the perspective and embedded assumptions of the mystical subject.

Having separated interpretive and explanatory endeavors, I then develop an interpretive approach to the study of mystical experience. First, I draw on the notion of semantic holism, which situates an experiential account within a “notional context” of related sources and texts. Semantic holism regards meaning as something that arises not from individual sentences or terms but from the interrelations of a subject’s statements, beliefs, and other, nondiscursive attitudes and emotions with one another. Second, I recommend the principle of charity, a basic hermeneutical principle that makes interpretation possible by assuming that a subject’s discourse has a minimal degree of internal consistency such that it has interpretable meaning. Taken together, holism and the principle of charity allow context to be harnessed as an interpretive guide to a mystical text or experiential account without importing assumptions about the structure of the experience itself.

Drawing on the work of Hans-Georg Gadamer, I also suggest a procedure for “checking” the interpreter’s preconceptions about the meaning of an experiential account against the emergent meaning of the text itself. This procedure goes hand in hand with phenomenological epoché, the hermeneutical principle that an interpreter must temporarily bracket or suspend his own philosophical commitments for purposes of interpretation. Phenomenological epoché foregrounds emic mystical assumptions about the nature of experience, which then serve as guides to the interpretation of specific experiential accounts.

Having articulated my approach, chapters 3, 4, and 5 put this method into practice. In each chapter, I focus on the work of one prominent mystic—Ibn al-ʿArabi, Meister Eckhart, and Hui-neng—in which he describes the nature of mystical experience. All of these figures both exerted significant influence on the mystical traditions of which they are a part and were influenced by those traditions. The understandings of mystical experience that they articulate, therefore, represent important trends within their respective traditions. And while Eckhart and Ibn al-ʿArabi shared certain historical influences important to all three Abrahamic religions, Hui-neng did not; this ensures that any similarities between all three mystical authors cannot be attributed to common historical sources or influences.

Beginning with a key passage from each mystic, I employ my hermeneutic method to interpret it. Each chapter organizes my interpretation into the two categories of epistemology and ontology. For purposes of this project, I employ the terms “ontology” (and its close analogue, “metaphysics”) and “epistemology” without reference to any specific philosophical theory or school of thought. Rather, in order to facilitate comparison across traditions, I define these terms in their most basic senses. Ontology refers to a theory concerning the fundamental nature and/or structure of reality, including the character or basic nature of the being of both an aspiring mystic and ultimacy. In the context of this project, ontology most often refers to the metaphysical status or nature of the mystic’s soul (or its cognate, depending on the religion under consideration), the deity or form of ultimacy with which the mystic is concerned, and the encounter between the two. Epistemology, on the other hand, refers to the modality by which a mystic comes to know or experience ultimacy.

Organizing interpretation into these two categories allows me to unearth fundamental aspects of mystical experience in all three cases: what is the nature of the encounter between mystic and ultimacy (i.e., is this an experience of identity or union, or not)? And what is the mode or type of knowing involved (i.e., is this mode of knowing linguistic, conceptual, and/or mediated)? Applying these two categories to my analyses of all three mystics facilitates comparison between them.

Chapter 3 focuses on the mystical experience of Ibn al-ʿArabi, arguably the most influential Sufi thinker and writer in the history of Islam. The chapter begins with a key passage from The Meccan Revelations in which he describes the apex of his own mystical journey, an experience the sheikh refers to as the “Muhammadan station.” Although brief, the passage is densely packed with idiosyncratic references to Ibn al-ʿArabi’s own thought and theology. In order to interpret the passage, I first draw on other sections of The Meccan Revelations. Then I consider other works of the Sufi master’s, especially The Bezels of Wisdom, another masterpiece that many consider the culmination of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s thought on religion and mystical practice. Finally, I consider Ibn al-ʿArabi’s reported experience in light of the broader context of Sufism, including common Sufi themes such as fanāʾ and baqāʾ, and the works of other Islamic mystics such as Mansur ibn Muhammad al-Hallaj and Abu Yazid al-Bistami.

Chapter 4 considers the mystical experience of Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican preacher and mystic who famously and controversially claimed that “God’s ground is my ground, and my ground is God’s ground.” First, I examine the remainder of the sermon in which Eckhart makes this striking claim. I then consider other examples from Eckhart’s substantial body of work, including sermons, biblical commentaries, and longer essays, all of which provide essential guidance in interpreting the key passage. I draw on both his vernacular works, many of which were intended as sermons to be preached to the public, and his scholarly Latin works, which were addressed to more educated audiences. Finally, I reflect on other influential Christian mystics, including Pseudo-Dionysius and the anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, who offer further interpretive guidance to Eckhart’s major themes.

Chapter 5 shifts focus to the Buddhist tradition, and specifically the enlightenment of Hui-neng, the ancient Chinese monk and esteemed patriarch of Zen Buddhism. He advocates a particular approach to Zen thought and practice that is the heart of the “sudden enlightenment” school of Chan (Zen) Buddhism. Hui-neng’s account of his own enlightenment serves as my key passage in this chapter. This account—along with other teachings of the Zen master—is found in The Sutra of Hui-neng (also called The Platform Sutra), the first resource I use in unraveling the patriarch’s understanding of mystical experience. I then consider The Diamond Sutra, a separate text that, according to Hui-neng, sparked his own enlightenment, and Hui-neng’s commentary on it. Finally, I turn to other sources of Zen teaching, such as the Blue Cliff Record and Nagarjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Although the philosophical context and basic assumptions with which Hui-neng operates are significantly different from those of Meister Eckhart and Ibn al-ʿArabi, the categories of epistemology and ontology still prove useful for organizing my interpretation of his work.

The conclusion summarizes and discusses the comparative findings of chapters 3 through 5. Although neither epistemology nor ontology is a category explicitly used by these mystical authors themselves, the two categories capture areas of thought that are deeply relevant to their understandings of mystical experience. They also serve my purpose of disclosing fundamental assumptions about experience that define their experiential accounts, and of comparing these with their counterparts in other mystical traditions. Through these categories, I identify a number of intriguing common themes between the three mystics. Ontologically, a significant structural similarity obtains in all three traditions. Each mystic experiential account depicts what I call an “ontological resonance” between mystic and ultimacy: however the metaphysical character of ultimacy is described, that character is represented as also constituting the most basic nature of the mystic’s self. The ontological nature of ultimacy is thus deeply connected with, if not identical to, the ontological nature of the mystic.

In addition, all three mystics describe their experiences as nonconceptual, nonlinguistic, and unmediated by context, training, or even their own religious traditions. This is not to say that these mystical writers simply dismiss the importance of religious education, doctrine, and scripture in pursuing their respective paths. However, they all concur that these discursive dimensions of experience and thought are ultimately surpassed at the pinnacle of the mystical journey. This indicates that mystical experience is typically characterized in ways that run directly counter to dominant trends in modern Western philosophy, and further underscores the risks involved in relying on an etic (Western) model of experience as an interpretive guide to studying mystical experience. These cross-cultural similarities do not warrant the claim that all mystics have identical experiences, or that they are experiencing the same divine reality, but they do represent intriguing commonalities that transcend differences of tradition, history, and context. These commonalities suggest provocative directions for further research in religious studies and philosophy.

Twenty-five years ago, Sallie B. King warned of a strange sort of procrustean bed developing out of academic insistence on its own interpretive theories. At that time, the works of Hans Penner and Steven Katz on mysticism were representative of her concern:

The danger of Katz’s and Penner’s approach is that it reduces mystical experience to mystical language for reason of methodological convenience. There is a parallel situation in psychology with respect to methodological and theoretical behaviorism. Starting from the observation that the so-called “inner world” is inaccessible to scientific observation, behaviorists limited themselves to what their scientific methodology could adequately study: human behavior. What began as a concern with methodological propriety, however, resulted in theoretical reductionism such that many behaviorists explained away mental and emotional phenomena altogether, “mind” became a four-letter word, and human beings were reduced to a set of material functions and processes. . . . We run a similar risk with the question of mystical experience. . . . I would very much regret seeing the kind of reductionism which has plagued psychology become normative in religious studies. It would be better, if necessary, to frankly acknowledge that the phenomena of mystical experience are beyond our reach and live with the consequences of that admission than to reduce mysticism to less than it is for the sake of method.

Although King was concerned specifically with analyses of language in mysticism, her warning is germane to the field in general. Steven Katz, Robert Forman, and many other scholars have sought to bring a greater degree of methodological rigor and theoretical sophistication to the study of mysticism, and they have drawn on various philosophical resources in doing so. This was necessary, given the lack of theoretical reflection demonstrated by much early work on mysticism thoughout the early and mid-twentieth century. There is the danger, however, of overemphasizing the power of theory. Overreliance on theories of consciousness (which, after all, are derived from their own contextually and culturally delimited perspectives) and the epistemological importance of context has created a situation in which interpretation of mystic experiential accounts is largely replaced by theoretical deductions based on interpreters’ own philosophical positions. In this sense, theory has become overly influential in interpretation and has limited the semantic horizons of mystical experience to possibilities predetermined by analysts’ own understandings of context and the nature of consciousness.

We can marshal a better response than the humble admission that mystical experience must remain beyond our theoretical grasp. Rather than impose theoretical constraints on the boundaries of experience or the meanings of texts, hermeneutics should open up source material for interpretation, and lay bare that which is implicit or assumed within it. Theory must not trump interpretation. Through both the proper application and the restraint of theory, an interpretive method can be devised that discloses the inner dynamics of mystical experience as described by its subjects. When thus applied, interpretation reveals complex and surprising similarities in mystical experience that contradict some of our most well worn theories and assumptions. Rather than straining to explain mystical experiences within the comfortable boundaries inscribed by our theories, it may be that these accounts demonstrate the necessity of revising the theories themselves.

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