Attempts to define mystical experience have been as diversified and as conflicting as attempts to interpret and assess its significance. This is not surprising, for the language used to express and describe mystical experience is richly paradoxical, figurative, and poetical.

Even if at times a mystic chooses what look like austere and precise metaphysical terms, this may be only an apparent concession to logic, for he will employ these terms in senses far from normal. Mystics have called the Godhead a sheer “Nothing” and yet the ground of all. They have affirmed simultaneously that the world is identical with God and that the world is not identical with God.

Some discriminations are possible, even if exact definition is not. Mystical experience is religious experience, in a broad but meaningful sense of “religious.” It is sensed as revealing something about the totality of things, something of immense human importance at all times and places, and something upon which one’s ultimate well-being or salvation wholly depends. More specifically, a mystical experience is not the act of acquiring religious or theological information but is often taken to be a confrontation or encounter with the divine source of the world’s being and man’s salvation. An experience is not held to be mystical if the divine power is apprehended as simply “over-against” one—wholly distinct and “other.”

There must be a unifying vision, a sense that somehow all things are one and share a holy, divine, and single life, or that one’s individual being merges into a “Universal Self,” to be identified with God or the mystical One. Mystical experience then typically involves the intense and joyous realization of oneness with, or in, the divine, the sense that this divine One is comprehensive, all-embracing, in its being. Yet a mystical experience may be given much less theological interpretation than this description suggests. A mystic may have no belief whatever in a divine being and still experience a sense of overwhelming beatitude, of salvation, or of lost or transcended individuality.

Some mystical experiences occur only at the end of a lengthy, arduous religious discipline, an ascetic path; others occur spontaneously (like much nature-mystical experience); others are induced by drugs such as mescaline or take place during the course of mental illness.

An important distinction can be made between the extrovertive (outward-looking) and introvertive (inward-looking) types of mystical experience. In the first of these, the subject looks out upon the multiplicity of objects in the world and sees them transfigured into a living, numinous unity, their distinctness somehow obliterated. In nature mysticism, a form of extrovertive experience, the items of nature are not lost to consciousness; rather they are seen with unusual vividness and all as “workings of one mind, the features/Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree” (William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 6). In the introvertive type, the mystic becomes progressively less aware of his environment and of himself as a separate individual. He speaks of being merged in, identified with, dissolved into, the One. The subject-object distinction vanishes altogether. Some of the best-known mystics testify to experiences of both types, but the introvertive, being at the furthest remove from ordinary experience, is usually held to be the more developed of the two.

Although we can call mystical experience a kind of religious experience, we do not discover agreement among mystics about the nature and status of the mystical goal. Christian and Islamic mysticism, for example, interpret the experience theistically, although not with complete consistency; the Upanishads and Theravāda Buddhism are not theistic. Pantheist, monist, and agnostic interpretations have been offered, all with some prima facie plausibility.

Alternative Religious Interpretations

The pantheist argues that mystical experience compels us to strip away anthropomorphic conceptions of deity and that although theism begins this work of refining, it stops long before it should. The theistic notion of God remains that of an infinite, supernatural individual. But apart from being intellectually unsatisfactory (infinity and individuality go awkwardly together), this picture contradicts the mystic’s own experience, which is one not of an external face-to-face meeting with a deity but rather of merging with, and realizing one’s own basic identity with, the mystical One. The theist has to set a great gulf between himself and his God; the mystic’s experience testifies both to the existence of this gulf and, paradoxically, to its elimination. Brahman is both far and near.

Why have so many of the greatest Christian mystics used theistic language to describe their obviously intense mystical experiences? The pantheist will say that either they have simple-mindedly used the only religious terms they had been taught—despite their unsuitability—or else that the desire to conform to orthodox Christian dogma about God’s transcendence has led them to muffle those parts of their individual experience that were opposed to it.

A pantheist interpretation claims that it alone does full justice to God’s infinity and that its theology eliminates the last primitive remnants of deism. Since a mystical experience is a discovery, a realization, of what is eternally true, there need be no perplexing doctrines about special divine self-revelations and self-communications nor any interference with natural law. Accordingly, a mystical experience induced by drug or disease does not have to be judged illusory or demonic. In the determination of whether it is authentic or not, its causal circumstances are simply beside the point.

The theist, however, is not without a reply. He will reject the pantheist’s conception of religious development. There has not been any general historical trend toward pantheism or monism in religion; and although early theisms were crudely anthropomorphic, this does not by itself entail that all personal language about God is equally false and crude. The doctrine of the Incarnation should teach the contrary—at least within Christendom.

Pantheism and monism, argues the theist, map only the lower slopes of the mystic’s ascent. They are concerned with the preliminary purging of the senses and intellect; their raptures do not testify to an achieved union with God but only to what is perhaps an unusually fresh, innocent, and aesthetically intense awareness of the created world and its beauty. The mescaline-user and the temporarily psychotic, who make extravagant claims for their own identity with the mystical One, ought to—often do—think more humbly of their experiences once normality returns. To the theist, the unio mystica is an objective that cannot be taken by assault; in the end, it is only the initiative, the grace, of God that bestows it. Causation does matter in this interpretation, and the inner, felt nature of the mystical experience cannot alone determine its authenticity.

Paradoxes of Religious Interpretations

Short decisive arguments can hardly be invoked to settle the dispute between these interpretations of mystical experience. The experiences themselves seem able to bear either interpretation; the choice between pantheism and theism is a choice between two massive conceptual systems. Neither account can claim the merit of being free from internal difficulties both conceptual and religious. Theism has somehow to combine the notions that God is immeasurably “other” to man and, yet, that mystical union is possible. Pantheism identifies world and God while maintaining their distinctness; it denies that “God” is simply another way of saying “world.”

Still more perplexingly, some mystics of great eminence speak the languages of both pantheism and theism. Meister Eckhart’s writings give full-blooded examples of each, as do those of the Indian mystic Śankara. Even in the Upanishads, although Brahman is said to be beyond relation, featureless, unthinkable, it (or he) is acknowledged to have personal aspects.

No precise or determinate idea, no particularized image, is allowed to be adequate to the mystical One. Although the ontological status of God seems at times to be that of a numinous individual being, at other times all hints of such a status are repudiated. “Simple people,” said Eckhart, “imagine that they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. That is not so.” The Divine is a “desert,” a “void,” an “abyss,” a “wheel rolling out of itself,” a “stream flowing into itself.”

Mystics will not always allow one even to say unequivocally that God exists. The pseudo-Dionysius, for example, denied that either the category of existence or of nonexistence applied to the Divine. These tensions and this indeterminateness—God is, or is not, a particular being, he is, or is not, an existent—can also be found in nonmystical theologies, but mysticism can enormously magnify them. Even Theravāda Buddhism contains deep-running paradox, despite its comparative reluctance to speculate at all. Attaining nirvāṇa, for instance, is like the extinguishing of a flame, yet nirvāṇa is not sheer simple extinction.

What attitude is it reasonable to adopt toward this display of tensions and antinomies? Four possibilities are worthy of serious discussion. (1) The paradoxes cannot be eliminated; they are to be taken literally and at their face value. Without paradox, we cannot speak of the mystic’s experiences or of his God, but this is no argument against the truth of the mystic’s claims. (2) The paradoxes are necessary in the same way that distortions of grammar and syntax are necessary to a poet attempting to say something that cannot be encompassed by ordinary language. They are not to be taken literally but are to be construed as analogies, hyperboles, metaphors, or oxymorons. (3) Since no logically coherent account of mystical vision seems attainable, it is more sensible to admit this fact and to believe the mystic’s claim that his experience is ineffable and that all language falsifies it. We would now have a mysticism without a theology.

A very high value could still be set upon mystical experience, but we should be reverently agnostic on all questions of interpretation. (4) The appearance of paradox in a piece of discourse is very often taken by philosophers as a reductio ad absurdum of its claims. (Compare the logician’s story of the barber who shaves only those who do not shave themselves. When paradox arises over the question “Does the barber shave himself?,” it is reasonable to infer that there logically cannot be a barber, so described.) Because the mystic says so many contradictory things about God, this demonstrates the logical impossibility of God’s existence, so described. Criticisms charging illogicality can be supported by attempts to explain in naturalistic terms the mystical experiences themselves.

Evaluation of Responses to Paradoxes

Whether or not the paradoxes are finally to be judged literal and irreducible, we must clearly reject some of the speculations that are aimed at reducing their offense. For example, how God can be, but not by being an individual entity, is profoundly obscure. The mystery is not removed if we say that God is Being Itself or Being as such. Even if our ontology allowed such universals as “courage itself” or “blueness itself,” we still could not meaningfully include Being Itself among their number; there is no characteristic named “being” that is common to all actual entities and that should figure in their complete description. “Being Itself” cannot logically refer to anything either particular or universal, divine or nondivine.

Similarly, if we are offended by the claim that God neither exists nor does not exist, we might try a familiar palliative and say that he is above being. Our concepts fail to grasp him precisely for that reason. “Above being” carries echoes of “above the turmoil,” “above suspicion,” “above praise,” with “above” indicating distance from and superiority to something. But in order to be “above,” one must first of all be—and continue to be. “God is above being” really fails to satisfy the conditions under which any “above” sentence of this kind can have meaning. It can, of course, be given a sense if “being” here means finite and dependent being. But if God is superior to this sort of being, if he is infinite and independent, then that is a superiority of his nature, and to learn this about him gives us no help with the original paradox.