Types of Interpretation of Mystical Experience

(from Philip Almond, Mystical experience and religious doctrine: An investigation of the study of mysticism in world religions. Berlin and New York: Mouton, 1982)

A. Unity of all Religions: Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

There is one truth with many expressions. Every religion is just an approximation of the truth. Therefore, the way in which it is expressed is not all that important. Where does the realization of this unity come from? From religious experience, which means mystical experience. Stace has elements of this too. Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant.


1. Approximation. Even if all religions are just approximations of the truth, this still doesn't answer the question of which is the best approximation. And, there seem to be contradictory statements between religions: Theravada - There is no absolute God, vs. Islam - There is no God but Allah. It seems that its just not true that everything is reducible to one, since there seem to be contradictions. As well, that reduction is going to be conditioned by one's own tradition.

Parable of the elephant - depends on the fact that we have eyes, even though the blind men are blind. So whose eyes are taken as normative? It is usually the case that one who argues that there is unity really means unity under their own religion. This also holds for those outside religion, who want to say that all religions are equal. This is usually a normative statement that secularity is best.

2. Priority of religious experience. Radhakrishnan sees religious experience as revealing religious truth, not natural experience.

2 types of religions: religions of the object (generally Western), and religions of experience (generally Eastern). The first directs faith toward a power outside, the second is an experience to which an individual attaches supreme value. The first has lots of rites and ceremonies, the second emphasizes self-discovery. Religions of the object are liable to be outmoded, since they confuse "eternal truths with temporal fact, metaphysics with history."

However, its not clear that history is to be contrasted with metaphysics, for (as for Kierkegaard), the historical moment is the occasion for the encounter with the eternal. In other words, experience is at the root of both types of religion, and its not clear that one can be dismissed so easily.

B. Varieties of Mystical Experience - R. C. Zaehner

3 distinct types of mystical experience: Panhenic, Monistic, and Theistic.

1. Panhenic: experience of the oneness of all things. Transcending of space and time. Subject-object polarity dissolved. No necessary religious connection.

2. Monistic: In panhenic mysticism, objective consciousness is still involved. The former includes the world, while the latter (monistic) excludes it. The soul realizes its eternal separateness from anything outside itself. There is realization of the difference between matter and spirit.

Monistic mysticism seems to be a development of panhenic. They are essentially similar, and different from 3.

3. Theistic: both 2 and 3 are experiences within the self, but 3 maintains the distinction between man and God, and 2 obliterates it. In 1 and 2, there can be no love, but there is in 3. 3. is higher, for there is no quietism.

But why is 3 really better? It could just be that 2 and 3 are different interpretations, and that the problems lies not in the various experiences, but in the doctrine brought to them.

C. Mystical, Numinous, and Religious: Ninian Smart

Assumptions often made in mystical theory:

1. There is within human nature a capacity for religious experience;

2. Religious experience forms the basis for all religion, and religious expression is referrable to it; and

3. Religious experience reflects a single ultimate reality.

Smart will accept 1 and 2, but not 3. Zaehner's panhenic mysticism doesn't really have a part in mysticism.

Smart critiques Zaehner's monistic/theistic split. Argues that Z. hasn't distinguished well enough between the experience and the interpretation. Different degrees of ramification (more or less dependence on doctrine, which has no part of the actual experience). As well, the interpretation can come from different points of view. Therefore, there are 4 possibilities:

1. Auto, low ram
2. Hetero, low ram
3. Auto, high ram
4. Hetero, high ram

Zaehner says that Buddhism is monistic. He says that Buddhism teaches doctrine of the soul. Smart, however, points out the doctrine of non-soul in even the earliest manuscripts. If this is true, then Buddhism is neither monistic (for there is no personal entity), nor theistic (for there is no God). This means that either Zaehner's classifications are wrong, or the Buddha misinterpreted his own mystical experience.

Smart concludes that all mystical experience is identical. Note problem: destroying Zaehner's thesis does not in itself mean that we have to accept Smart's thesis. Smart accuses Zaehner of importing his own #4 interpretation on mysticism.

Smart's position is that all mystical experience is phenomenologically identical. Why do auto-interpretations vary, then? Because religion is an attempt to conceptualize what is unconceptualizable. Variety of interpretations explained by 2 types of religious experience, mystical and numinous. Numinous based on the confrontation with a being qualitatively different from anything previously encountered. Occurs unexpectedly (not like mysticism).
Cf. Otto on numinous - non-rational pre-eminent in the essence of religion.
Mystical experience is contrary to this. It is sought (not spontaneous). It is unity, rather than the feeling of encountering the radically other.
Religions are doctrinal schemes. Can incorporate only one or the other strand, or both, with predominance given to one or the other.

Consequences of putting the two together:

1. Mystical tends to idealism, numinous to realism. But mystical Buddhism sees the world as real (not illusory)

2. Mystical makes for negative theology, numinous for positive.

Smart prefers a combination, with numinal predominant. This way, the mystical doesn't get destroyed.

Major problem in distinction between experience and interpretation. Its not clear that things will so easily split up.

D. Extrovertive/Introvertive Mysticism - W. T. Stace

Stace sees the panhenic as part of mysticism (unlike Smart). Splits between Extrovertive and Introvertive. Extrovertive has not reached the stage of pure consciousness yet. This consciousness is not of anything.

Note: 1. Pure self is an interpretation of the unitary consciousness. 2. No necessity of only one universal self. 3. Indian argument - if all souls are one, then when one gains release, all should. But this doesn't happen.

Mysticism all ultimately is pantheism, for Stace. While this is true for many mystics, Stace would have to show that the utterances of both types of mystics when considered without doctrinal ramifications supports this.

Introvertive not clearly superior, as Stace would have it.


  1. Radhakrishnan: There is one kind of religious experience, the mystical.
  2. Zaehner: There are three kinds of mystical experience: panhenic, monistic, and theistic.
  3. Smart: There are two kinds of religious experience: mystical and numinous (theistic).
  4. Stace: There are two kinds of mystical experience, extrovertive and introvertive, the first of which is on the path to the second.