Monistic and Theistic Mystical Experiences: Part One
Published on February 6th, 2010 | by Harmonist staff1
By Michael Stoeber
…The apparent differences between monistic and theistic experiences pose the greatest threat to the thesis that there exists a common core of mysticism. In examining the essentialist thesis the terms of the distinction must be fully appreciated, for they do not coalesce easily or smoothly. Indeed, they seem incommensurable. What is the basis of dichotomy? A preliminary difficulty is posed by Ninian Smart who points out that within monistic mysticism itself, experiences are highly ramified by the mystic’s auto-interpretation of doctrinal beliefs. He mentions Buddhist, Sankhya Yogic, and Advaitic experiences. To this list we could also add some Taoist accounts. But there are key common elements of these experiences which are not plausibly ramifications of interpretation, and so there is good reason for distinguishing theistic mysticism from the monistic type.
The monistic experience is described in negative terms, over and against all that which we know in a positive sense. Most radically in this fashion it is called sunyata (emptiness) by some Buddhists, who often will not say much more about it directly. Sankhya Yogins characterize it as the realization of one’s purusa (Self), of which there are an infinite number. This purusa is utterly isolated from prakrti (matter), where prakrti constitutes everything besides these singular eternal selves. The Chuang Tzu characterizes it paradoxically as the experience of the not-something—not-nothing Tao. In Advaita it is identity with the One, which is unified existence, consciousness, and bliss, static and unchanging, and absolutely transcending this composite and mutable empirical realm. Clearly, these four brief descriptions do differ radically in metaphysical and anthropological assumptions and implications; but in their apophatism they all agree that the experience is not only without sensory and conceptual content but also tremendously affective, non-dual, static and impersonal. Although not powerfully descriptive, these characteristics constitute the common elements of various monistic accounts. More specifically, these accounts similarly point to a Reality different from all that we see and know; it is wholly other than this caused, temporal, spatial, changing, growing, composite and differentiated reality. But these common characteristics can be summarized in terms of non-dualism, staticity, impersonalism, and affective power. These essential elements correspond to Ninian Smart’s depiction of the common mystical experience of |consciousness-purity’. This non-dualistic experience is expressed in a negative, impersonal, ontological language which involves dialectical paradox, and which can also act as a kind of philosophical askesis in the mystical means.
Like monistic experiences, theistic experiences are also said to be immensely blissful and beyond normal sensory perception and conceptual categories. But in striking contrast to monistic accounts, theistic experiences are described in terms of devotional rapture, a union with an active and compassionate personal Being, who is or possesses the moral attributes of goodness and love to a superlative degree. In theistic mysticism some sense of self-identity remains in a powerfully affective experience which is described in strikingly personal terms. This, I think, is the basis of the contrast: monistic experiences involve a loss of duality or differentiation which rules out personal experience altogether. But theistic mysticism is personalist. Here the Real is considered Self-conscious, which means the Real has a sense of being in contrast to created entities. We can speak in this case in analogical terms of personality. Not only is this Real essentially active and dynamic, but this Real can also relate or communicate its Self-consciousness to people, though not via the sensory and conceptual modes by which we normally relate. In this context this Real is superlatively moral and expresses in mystical experience these characteristics. The Real is, in some sense which we cannot fully cognize, love, compassion and goodness, and imparts these energies to the mystic in the spiritual encounter of the vibrant experience, where some sense of differentiating self-identity is maintained by the participants.
But in the monistic account there is nothing about the Reality which would allow the mystic to distinguish it from herself or himself. We can illustrate this point in brief reference to the apophatic Advaitic notions of sacciddananda: the experienced Real is pure and unified existence (sat), consciousness (cit) and bliss (ananda). But this pure consciousness could have no sense of self-consciousness, for such would differentiate it from the consciousness of other beings. It is a non-reflexive awareness or awakening of primary Being, not a consciousness of distinctive self. Moreover, the Reality is one devoid of all sense of personal reference or feeling. It is emotionless, relationless, and amoral; personal attributes require a sense of self-consciousness. It is, then, an inactive Being of pure consciousness which cannot relate or communicate. To speak of it as pure bliss, therefore, is to point to a bliss completely independent of other things, and one which it is’ rather than possesses’. As such, it is not a proper emotional feeling, but a state of utter tranquillity and serenity in identity, corresponding well to the Advaitic simile of peaceful, dreamless sleep.
Once the content of this Advaitic account is clarified, we see its similarity to the negative descriptions given by certain Buddhist, Sankhya Yogic, and Taoist mystics. Non-dualism, staticity, impersonalism and blissfulness are the common elements expressed by these monistic mystics. Clarified in this manner, the contrast to theistic descriptions is striking. It is hard to imagine how mystics could fail to distinguish accurately between two so radically different formulations of experience. But Stace claims that theistic mystics encounter in introvertive experience only this impersonal Real: that theistic mystics theistically misinterpret monistic experiences. As I mentioned, Stace quotes both Eckhart and Ruusbroec to illustrate his thesis. For example, in an account which refers to the theistic Christian Trinity, Ruusbroec speaks of a blissful beatitude experienced in the context of passive unity. He says:
There follows the union without distinction. Enlightened men have found themselves an essential contemplation which is above reason and beyond reason, and a fruitive tendency which pierces through every condition and all being, and in which they immerse themselves in a wayless abyss of fathomless beatitude where the Trinity of the Divine Persons possess their nature in the essential unity.
… The abysmal waylessness of God is so dark and so unconditioned that it swallows up within itself every Divine way and activity, and all the attributes of the Persons within the rich compass of the essential unity…
Stace goes on to parallel correctly Ruusbroec’s descriptions with similarities in monistic passages from the Upanisads. Despite the references to the Trinity of divine Persons, the theist Ruusbroec is clearly describing an introvertive monistic experience. The experience is depicted apophatically, as beyond both normal conceptual categories and the personal Trinity, where the Real is without activity and attributes. Ruusbroec speaks of a distinctionless and unconditioned unity beyond differentiated being, where activity has ceased in a blissful union of self-less identity.
Stace goes on to note Eckhart speaking similarly of a movement towards identity with the One: |God leads the human spirit into the desert, into his own unity which is pure One.” Eckhart comments further, referring to this unity of God as the Godhead: In this barren Godhead activity has ceased and therefore the soul will be most perfect when it is thrown into the desert of the Godhead, where both activity and forms are no more, so that it is sunk and lost in this desert where its identity is destroyed.” Eckhart is here not describing an encounter with a personal active God. Rather, it is an awareness of identity with something beyond God, a formless and non-active experience within which the mystic’s self-identity dissolves — a realization that seems utterly monistic. Obviously Eckhart, like Ruusbroec, is espousing a monistic experience. Stace is correct in his appraisal. To those who suspect that he might have focused only on rare exceptions in Eckhart and Ruusbroec, there are many other fine monistic illustrations in their writings. To note a more controversial example, one which Stace does not quote, Eckhart speaks of being “transported into God’s naked being,” where the mystic becomes “one with him and one substance and one essence and one nature and in this way a child of God.”
Admittedly, this reference has an apparent theistic element not found in the other quotations. Eckhart speaks of becoming a “child of God,” thus connoting personality and relationship. This is an important point, key indeed, to understanding mystical transformation. But I think it supports an hypothesis quite at odds to Stace’s. Eckhart here is expressing a relationship which arises out of the monistic experience, not one that occurs in the experience itself, hence giving metaphorical expression to the affective power of the experience. He is not theistically ramifying the monistic experience, but speaking of an experience closely related to this monistic immersion. I will return to this important issue later in the paper. For now we can point out that even this reference to becoming a child of God is overshadowed by the fact that there is no reference to an active, loving and good God, but rather an utter loss of personality in identity of substance, essence and nature with the fundamental being of the Real.
These introvertive descriptions given by theistic mystics, claims Stace, indicate that theists interpret monistic experiences according to their theistic theology. Stace moves from these monistic descriptions given by theistic mystics to the hypothesis that all Christian mystics who describe their experiences theistically are involved in monistic introvertive experiences. We will limit the focus on this issue here to Eckhart and Ruusbroec. For Stace’s thesis to have some plausibility it requires that Ruusbroec’s and Eckhart’s monistic descriptions have some strong theistic comments intermixed with or overlaying an essentially monistic account. Then we could plausibly deduce theistic interpretations of monistic experiences. But in the quotations cited the only comment remotely theistic is Eckhart’s reference to becoming a “child of God,” which, I put forward, is a statement about the transformative consequence of a monistic experience. And clearly in the other examples given, Eckhart and Ruusbroec are not describing monistic experiences theistically at all. They are in fact giving purely monistic accounts of their introvertive experiences. Ruusbroec is not speaking of one or another Person of the Christian Trinity, but expressing an impersonal experience of these Persons in passive and formless unity. Similarly, Eckhart is not speaking of a personal creative God but pointing towards the static and impersonal essence of this God, to the unity of Godhead which he claims goes even deeper than this impersonal unity of the Trinity. Indeed, their very theological language reflects the monistic—theistic distinction.
This is very important. Although both Ruusbroec and Eckhart often express themselves in Trinitarian theistic theology, they are making claims about their experiences which contradict the essentialist thesis. Ruusbroec speaks of a state that goes well beyond personalist theology. He says, “there the three Persons give place to essential unity and abide without distinction … For that beatific state … is so onefold that neither Father, nor Son, nor Holy Ghost is distinct according to Persons.” This is not an intimate encounter in devotional love with a personal being. It is a union of identity that somehow goes deeper and further than the personal God. Ruusbroec is making a distinction between the personal God of the Trinity and the impersonal Unity beyond. Eckhart is even more adamant and explicit in this regard, incorporating the notion of Godhead to represent the Divine Essence of the personal God of the Trinity. In a sermon that Stace obviously never encountered, Eckhart distinguishes in no uncertain terms between God and the Godhead:
Now pay attention! All creatures set their course on their highest perfection. Please now perceive what I am about to say, which I swear by my soul is the everlasting truth: I shall repeat what I have never said before: God and his Godhead are as different as heaven and earth. I will go still further: The inner and the outer person are as different as heaven and earth. But God’s distance from the Godhead is many thousand miles greater still. God becomes and ceases to become, God waxes and wanes.
In vivid rhetoric Eckhart passionately attempts to convey the radical difference between a personal, active and creative God and its static essence. He says, |God becomes and ceases to become, God waxes and wanes’. Godhead is beyond personalist conceptions, indeed beyond categories and conceptions of all kinds. Godhead is only described apophatically and paradoxically, as the unified and inactive Source of personal God and all things. Eckhart says,
Everything within the Godhead is unity, and we cannot speak about it. God accomplishes, but the Godhead does not do so and there is no deed within the Godhead. The Godhead never goes searching for a deed. God and Godhead are distinguished through deeds and a lack of deeds…. When I come into the core, the soil, the stream, and the source of the Godhead, no one asks where I am coming from or where I’ve been. No one has missed me in the place where “God” ceases to become.
Godhead is deedless, passive Source. It does nothing, indeed Eckhart likes to refer to it as Nothing, yet it is the source of everything. This ineffable impersonal Godhead is depicted as somehow above, beyond or behind the describably personal Being. So Stace’s thesis, indeed, all essentialist accounts, rest on very shaky ground indeed. He cannot justify the essentialist perspective with reference to monistic descriptions of apparently monistic experiences; and both Ruusbroec’s and Eckhart’s accounts appear to be just that. The case against the essentialist thesis is further strengthened by the facts that there are theistic passages of these mystics which are unobscured by monistic references, and we do not find inconsistencies in their impersonalist-personalist experiential dichotomy. In their writings there are purely theistic descriptions depicting dynamic experiences of a personal Deity. In light of their monistic descriptions, these theistic interpretations cannot plausibly be construed as theistic accounts of monistic experiences. Ruusbroec speaks, for example, of a profound mystical consolation which arises in the context of loving union with Christ:
Out of this sweetness comes a richness of the heart and of all the bodily powers, so that it seems to man that he be caught up from within by a Divine embrace in love. This richness and this consolation are greater and more satisfying in the soul and in the body than could be all the riches that the earth might yield, even if one man could possess them all. In this richness God through His gifts sinks Himself in the Heart of man, with so much consolation savouring well and so much joy that the heart from within overflows.
This personalist account of the consolation of the mystical “embrace in love,” which occurs as a wonderfully consoling Real settles into the joyous heart of the mystic lover, cannot plausibly be explained as a theistic ramification of passive monistic unity. Moreover, although the details of Ruusbroec’s mystical ascent are not very clearly systematized, he does insist in The Spiritual Espousals on a rough distinction between theistic and monistic levels. The first stage consists of preliminary and lower-level theistic devotional experiences, the second involves the further purification of the soul and mediated higher level theistic experiences, and the third consists of unmediated realizations of monistic unity.
Eckhart similarly describes a theistic experience highlighted by what he calls graced or spiritual love:
If I turn my reason—which is, after all, a light—away from all created things and focus it on God, then my reason, into which God uninterruptedly pours his grace, is enlightened and united with this divinely given love and thereby knows and loves God as he is in himself. Thus we are taught how God is poured out in creatures gifted with rason and how we with our reason draw close to his graced light and ascend to that light which is God.
In contrast to the impersonalist identity with passive Godhead, Eckhart here speaks of an introvertive knowing and loving of a grace-giving God. In this passage Eckhart is speaking of a theistic experience unrelated to monistic Godhead. As we will see in a moment, this is not always the case. But in another theistic passage he says: “Grace comes with the Holy Spirit. It carries the Holy Spirit on its back. Grace is not a stationary thing; it is always found in a becoming. It can flow out of God and then only immediately. The function of grace is to transform and reconvey the soul to God. Grace makes the soul God-like.” Here, in stark contrast to monistic sublation, we have another theistic account, one that involves an active and mediating energy that draws the soul towards relationship with the Real.
Given Eckhart’s previous comments about the Godhead, and his distinction between Godhead and God, these passages defy a monistic interpretation. There are no references to Godhead experience here. The static unified Godhead does not love, and remains non-dualistically graceless. Eckhart insists on these points. If he did not then the essentialist thesis might have some plausibility; only if the monistic Real were given some positive, personalist attributes, could Stace’s position have some force. But it is implausible to suppose that Eckhart and Ruusbroec in their theistic interpretations are misinterpreting monistic experiences when they themselves are quite explicit and consistent about the two radically different types. Stace is mistaken to think that the introvertive experience is of a singularly monistic type; introvertive experiences involve both the impersonal monistic unity and the personal theistic union.