Response to “Roman Glass”

This follows on my “Looking through Roman Glass”. I posted a link to that piece in the closed facebook group dealing with the course Pete Rollins is running, and which prompted that writing. Pete then came up with a very spirited response, which was as follows:-

” I tend to think that mystical experience is a very common (I’d even say universal) human experience. I’ve always like Gabriel Marcel, who in his essay “On the Ontological Mystery” brilliantly shows how mystery (which he calls the “ontological need”), is at work always in the subject, even though it is often in a repressed or minimal way. But it is experienced at various times when (to name only a few), in morality we are caught up in the experience of an act that is beyond utilitarian value, in love, which moves us beyond the assessment of someone in terms of their qualities, in religion, who one feels absolute dependence, in art, when one is taken into the iconic nature of the work… etc. Because I believe the mystical experience – or ontological need – is a universal, I am very skeptical of anyone who claims privileged access to it. Like Tillich, I would say that we only need to pay attention to our lives in order to see our participation in it – even if this participation is rudimentary. So, I’d lay aside the idea of a special class of people who experience something that others do not, and turn to the question of what this experience is. In the worlds of Perennial Philosophy, Psychedelic Enlightenment, New Age, and even in Kant. the mystical experience is an experience of a limit (the Kantian Sublime). But I think that even a conservative like Marcel sees this as wrong, mysticism is not the limit… the seeing through a glass darkly, it is the seeing ‘fully’ that Paul talks about. I write about this in The Divine Magician, but to sumerise, the misreading of Pauls ‘Dark Glass’ is the assumption that there is something behind it, rather than the idea that the dark glass is what creates the illusion that there is something behind it. The conservative reading that Paul is saying that the dark glass refers to ‘General Revelation’, is then closed to the truth than the liberal idea that it refers to our current state. Paul is saying that ‘Specific Revelation’ is the moment in which we see through the dark glass. The mistake of confessional theology is to think that this is the point at which we see that substantive reality is there, when the revelation is that substantive reality is subject. This is all very provisional and would need unpacked. I was thinking about doing a seminar on the Dark Glass, maybe I’ll try that for the next pyroseminar.”

My own response to that was this:-

Well, that’s an interesting and forceful rejoinder.

I might make a distinction between mystical experience and peak mystical experience here (and when I refer to people as mystics, I mean those who have had peak mystical experiences and whose worldview is largely shaped by those).

Looking around in the 60s for fellow mystics, I found very, very few. I did, however, find quite a number of theologically minded people who basically denied that mysticism existed (they’d not experienced anything like that, mystics were unable to tell them exactly how to have such an experience, so obviously it didn’t happen). Others tried to downplay the impact of a peak mystical experience, probably aided in that by mystics saying “well, it’s a bit like…” Yes, there are parallels with, for instance, aesthetic appreciation (I list a few in my post), and most people can relate to one or all of those, but they are not equivalent to peak mystical experience in much the same way that a mild buzz from a glass of good whisky is not the same as a psilocybin trip (and even that may be too similar to express the experiential gap).

I am, in other words, telling you what (for instance) William James identified when studying mystics, that mystical experience IS a particular category of experience which is not really very much like any other, and that in my considerable experience of talking with people about their spiritual experience, looking for other mystics, I have found it to be very much a minority who have such experiences. That said, there do seem to be more people these days who will state that they have had a mystical experience than was the case 50 years ago, and certainly more people are prepared to talk about mysticism as if it is a particular mode of perception.

I have not seen the detail of the questions used in surveys which return those results, though, and I suspect that if the questioners set the boundaries of “mystical experience” widely, they may be including in their figures, for instance, those who feel a certain frisson when viewing a panoramic view, or whose world is turned upside-down by falling in love. They may be in some ways similar, but (using James’ terminology) they tend to be distinguishable as they lack the noetic quality. As, to my eyes, do the examples you use above.

It may therefore be that there is no room for further discussion here, as you invalidate the means of perception which is the whole basis of my own thinking; if I am not seeing something special, there is obviously no need to engage with what I say about it. Indeed, I may be being very foolish in trying to engage with your work at all.

However, for at least the time being I intend to persevere.

Now, firstly, mystics will commonly report a very few peak experiences during their lives – I know of a few who have only had one, but have based their entire lives thereafter on that one experience. They will, however, often report much more minor experiences which partake of some of the quality of the original, and which revive some of the force of it, on a regular basis. This may, I think, be analagous to the common experience range which you talk of. These I have in the past described as “an edge of” a full mystical experience, and I found myself that a regime of meditation and contemplation could keep up such experiences on a regular basis. The trouble is, from my point of view, these are “mysticism lite”, mysticism without most of the information-carrying aspect and without the transformative impact (though they might serve to maintain a transformation).

Now, I am not a philosopher by training, so I can’t engage with your comments about Marcel or Kant, at least not at the moment, having not read them. I also do not peg Tillich as a mystic, particularly as he seems (like you) to reject mysticism. Paul, however, I can talk of a bit, particularly as he is identified by several writers on mysticism as having been a mystic himself (and, in some of his writing, I think I can identify that source of inspiration). I can therefore unhesitatingly identify Paul’s writing about “through a glass, darkly” as pointing at the distinction between the noetic content of mysticism and the inability to express it adequately (which James calls “ineffable”). I can very easily relate to the information content of the mystical experience as “seeing clearly” and that of the rest of the time as being “through a glass, darkly”.

Like you, however, I tend to materialist readings, so I’ll be more generous than you and not characterise your suggestion that there’s nothing behind the glass as a misreading – it’s merely another reading. It’s one which doesn’t resonate with me, but hey, the author is dead, so…

So, why am I persevering here? Well, for one thing, I like your humour and your putting of complex philsophical ideas in terms I can at least sometimes (and somewhat) understand. I like the exploration of the absurd and apparent contradictions. More, though, I look for you coming up with forms of words which, while they may not analytically work, nonetheless *do something* which brings one of those “aha” moments.

And I think you could probably do with a mystic harrassing you when you talk about mystics…

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