Monistic and Theistic Mystical Experiences: Part Two

The following article, “Introvertive Mystical Experiences: Monistic, Theistic, and the Theo-Monistic,” is excerpted from Religious Studies, June 1993.

By Michael Stoeber

Read part one.

There is also a third type of introvertive experience, one that we might call a post-monistic realization or theo-monistic transformation. I suspect it is this transformative account which has led many essentialist scholars to suppose a common type, for it draws the monistic and theistic experiences together in the expression of this non-dual, inactive, and impersonal realization through a personal socio-moral orientation involving certain theistic elements. In the theistic accounts of Ruusbroec and Eckhart quoted above, they are giving us descriptions which appear to be wholly unrelated to monistic realizations. But many of their theistic accounts, although phenomenologically distinct, are associated with monistic realizations. What they propose is an experience which is not properly monistic or theistic as we have traditionally understood these mystical experiences.

Eckhart’s reference to “becoming a child of God through an experience of monistic unity, which I mentioned above, is one example. Speaking of Godhead as Father of the Trinity, he begins to clarify the transformative process involved in theo-monistic experience. There is in the human being a fundamental desire to realize the integrating source essential to the personal Real. The apex of the human soul “wants something better than God having a name…. it wants him as he is Father…. It wants him as he is the marrow out of which goodness springs; it wants him as he is the nucleus from which goodness flows; it wants him as he is the root, the vein, from which goodness exudes. Only there is he Father.” This is a monistic encounter beyond personalist and dualistic conceptions, beyond even the grace-mediation of the personal Real. Through Godhead experience the “soul is united with God and embraced by God, and grace escapes the soul so that it can now no longer accomplish things with grace but divinely in God. Thus the soul is in a wonderful way enchanted and loses itself.” Speaking of this as the contemplation of God unveiled, Eckhart says, “In this experience the soul receives all her being and all her life, and draws all that she is from the ground of God, and knows nothing of knowledge, or of love, or of anything at all. She becomes entirely and absolutely passive in the being of God.” But static monistic isolation is not the religious ideal. Eckhart asks, “What help is it to me that Mary is full of grace, if I am not also full of grace?” thus emphasizing the ideal that the mystic becomes grace-filled and grace-giving, over and above the consolation of theistic encounters. He goes on immediately to ask further, “And what help is it to me that the Father gives birth to his Son unless I too give birth to him? It is for this reason that God gives birth to his Son in a perfect soul and lies in the maternity bed so that he can give birth to him again in all his works.”

Eckhart proposes a transformative experience wherein monistic identification with the impersonal essence of a personal Real naturally leads the mystic to mirror the moral activity of a creative Deity. He expresses this process vividly in trinitarian terms, as the Father giving birth to the Son. This immediately entails the Holy Spirit or Love, as well as passionate creative activity and relationship; this birthing in the Divine finds its expression in the social world. As Beverly Lanzetta comments, for Eckhart “the self-emptying of the soul is not finalized in the stillness and indistinction of the Godhead but flows out again bearing gifts of a ‘wife’ and gives birth to the self-same Son in the ground or the ‘spark’ of the soul. For Eckhart, the resurrected or new existence takes place in this life when the soul as virginal wife lives out of its own ground.”

I would suggest that this theo-monistic experience helps us to understand the monistic accounts given by certain Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu personalist mystics. Clearly we must recognize various degrees of realization of Source-consciousness, as well as the very many forms this consciousness can take in its human actualization. But the phenomenological structure of the transformation involves a monistic identity with an inactive and impersonal Source from which emanates elements essential to a creative and personal Divine. The mystic encounters her or his source in the Divine in an experience which is literally identification with that potential energy through which arises their essential being as persons. The Source is experienced as static and amoral consciousness—purity, to use a phrase of Stace and Smart; it is empty of personalist—dualistic forces. That is the most we can say about it—more even than some personalist monists would want to say—which is not much at all. It is mysteriously apophatic. It is a pre-birth state, so to speak, described provocatively by mystics who speak of it as a kind of profound womb-experience. It somehow precedes differentiation and personalism: it is the source of personal God, people, and creativity.

Creativity is an utterly mysterious phenomenon; both the Chuang Tzu and Eckhart claim that it is out of this monistic Source that genuine creativity arises. Eckhart insists that in order to transform herself in Divinity, the mystic must realize this Source of her being. He says, the “beginning is for the sake of the final goal, for in that final end everything rests which ever received existence endowed with reason. The final goal of being is the darkness or the unknowability of the hidden divinity, which is that light that shines “but the darkness has not comprehended it.” Similarly, Ruusbroec espouses a monistic ideal: “Now all holiness and all blessedness is dependent on the soul being led, through its likeness to God and through the means of grace and glory, to rest in the essential unity.” Yet, for both mystics the spiritual transformation does not stop with monistic unity. For out of this monistic Source issues dynamic, creative, and personal elements, and the mystic becomes a medium of this emanation. Ruusbroec says:

For those who are most single are those most steadfast and best at peace with themselves, and they are the most deeply sunk in God, and they are the most enlightened in understanding, and the most prolific in good works, and the most common in their outflowing …. And therefore we must in our depths remain single, and observe all things with an enlightened reason, and with a common love transfuse all things.

Louis Dupre recognizes both the static and dynamic elements in Ruusbroec’s mysticism. He says, the Christian contemplative “participates in the eternal word as it proceeds from the divine Silence, containing all creation within itself Union with God, then, for Ruusbroec, means union with God’s self-expression—the internal one of the Word as well as the external one of creation.” So Ruusbroec, like Eckhart, proposes two types of theistic experiences, pre-monistic and post-monistic. The post-monistic is theo-monism. It can be distinguished from pre-monistic theism in that it is much more than a transient experience, and much more than mystic consolation. Mystics move beyond the interpretive mediums that are necessary in experiencing and expressing the energies and consciousness of pre-monistic theistic encounters, and they themselves become the very mediums of this Real’s self-expression. Mystic self-identity is spiritually transfigured in theo-monism, as the essence of human personality is integrated into that of the Real. The Divine then becomes the internalized orienting focus of the mystic’s dispositions and perceptions. This is a profound advance from the mediated encounters characteristic of pre-monistic theistic mysticism. Eckhart uses a wonderful simile of a drop of water falling to the sea; the drop changes into the sea, not the sea into the drop of water. Analogously, Eckhart claims, “When God draws the soul to himself, then the soul becomes divine, but not that God becomes the soul. Then the soul loses its name and its power but not its will and not its being.” This divine integration then leads to the natural expression of the active personal elements which issue from the monistic source, in the context of the mystic’s unique interpretational frame and dispositions. Eckhart says: “Happy is the person who has come to that same source out of which the Son draws. It is there that even we will receive our happiness and there where his happiness lies, wherein he has his being; in this same ground all of God’s friends will receive their blessedness and create from it.”


Despite significant theological or philosophical differences, all well advanced mystics are quite clear about the difficult and profound transformative processes involved in mystic transformation. The monistic experience is beyond all concepts and categories; it is a painful stripping away of egoism and all sensible interference, all that by which we connote, describe and define. But personalist, monistic mystics do not remain permanently in this monistic immersion; Eckhart suggests that they are transformatively reborn into the Divine—personalist state for which they are intended. Mystics do not just identify with their monistic Source, at least not in this life; they are also temporal and spatial personal beings. Indeed, I would suggest that this combination of Source and personality has had a profound impact on our civilizations. For this rebirth out of the Source issues forth in tremendous creativity, an enlightened perspective which reflects the differentiated, dynamic, and personalist elements of theistic experiences. This conception of theo-monistic experience helps us to understand the compassion of the bodhisattva, the benevolence of the jivanmukta, the deified activity of the Sufi, and the natural creativity of the “daemonic” Taoist sage. Mystics do that which arises from the Source; they create, but not impersonally and amorally. Rather they do that which all truly religious, personal beings respect and aspire to do; they express to their fellow human beings, who also originate from the Source, those realized personalist attributes of the Divine that issue out of the Source.

For example, in the case of the Taoist mystic, “daemonic” signifies Rudolph Otto’s sense of the word, as it is used by A. C. Graham to translate shen. In the Chuang Tzu, shen refers to the person who through processes of purification is open to receive the ch’i (power or energy) of the Tao. Indeed, Graham’s reading of the Chuang Tzu corresponds very closely to the transformative processes associated with the personalist monism that I am developing in the context of theo-monistic mysticism. Graham’s comments on one passage illustrate vividly the Taoist parallel:

When the purified fluid has become perfectly tenuous the heart will be emptied of conceptual knowledge, the channels of the senses will be cleared, and he will simply perceive and respond. Then the self dissolves, energies strange to him and higher than his own (the daemonic) enter from outside, the agent of his actions is no longer the man but heaven working through him, yet paradoxically… in discovering a deeper self he becomes for the first time truly the agent. He no longer has deliberate goals, the “about to be” at the centre of him belongs to the transforming processes of heaven and earth. Then he will have the instinct for when to speak and when to be silent, and will say the right thing as naturally as a bird sings.

So the Chuang Tzu speaks of becoming the daemonic sag’. Eckhart speaks similarly of becoming a “child of God’. To become a child of God one must realize the Source of the child and of God—what various monistic mystics call the Godhead, the Father or Unity of the Trinity, nirguna Brahman, sunyata, or the Tao. These are monistic experiences, but they have profound theistic consequences. In the context of Ruusbroec and Eckhart, and for all other personalist monistic mystics, I call it a theo-monistic experience because although it involves an impersonal monistic realization, it issues in a perspective that also reflects an active, creative, and personal Real. It involves the expression of the powers of this Real through dynamic, personalistic creativity. Ruusbroec says “This exalted unity of the Divine nature is a living, fertile unity,” thus expressing the creative impetus of the personalist, monistic mystic. Eckhart also stresses the monistic mystic’s intimate connection with a supreme spiritual Being. He emphasizes theistic experiences that arise from the monistic identification—an active, personalist orientation that issues from the transformative immersion in the Source. He says in “the supreme emptiness of detachment, man and God are united in fertility; one sole determination joins them together; that of giving birth.” In this regard Eckhart accentuates, like many Buddhist monists, compassion. He says, “The highest work of God is compassion and this means that God sets the soul in the highest and purest place which it can occupy: in space, in the sea, in a fathomless ocean; and there God works compassion.”

For Eckhart, like so many other monistic mystics, this monistic transformation is personalist in nature. But Eckhart goes further than some monists, insisting that we arise out of the source of a personal God; Eckhart espouses a dual nature of the Real—that there are both personal and impersonal elements of the Divine. He is not alone in this claim; the view is confirmed not only by some other Christian mystics, but also some Vedantins. Besides illustrating features of the theo-monistic transformation, Ramanuja and Aurobindo Ghose, for example, also ascribe both impersonal and personal elements to the Divine. And in terms of contemporary Hindu—Christian dialogue, we find parallels in the thinking of Henri Le Saux, Bede Griffiths, Walter Teasdale, and Michael von Bruck.

Robert McKim has suggested that it is a coherent possibility that the Source or Real is both personal and impersonal in nature. Theo-monistic mysticism confirms this hypothesis, and its transformative elements also provide a synthesis of the impersonal-personal aspects. The very structure of theo-monistic transformation supports this view of an impersonal and personal Divine. For the monist moves from a passivity to a dynamism, from a non-dualistic realization of an amoral nature to a rediscovery of transmuted Self which uniquely expresses through the individual mystic-channel the active, creative, and personal energies which issue from this Source. Although we find the process expressed in various ways in the different mystical traditions, it can be explained in neutral phenomenological terms. It seems aptly described as the monistic movement to personalist mysticism; more specifically it is the mystic identification with that Source of potential energy through which arises their essential being as persons. Donald Evans describes it as a kind of transparent mysticism; the mystic moves beyond active social orientations and personality, wholly emptying Self of consciousness. Through common mystical means of purification, monistic mystics render the self transparent to this apophatic Source. Louis Dupre speaks similarly in psychological terms of a connatural knowing—an intellectual intuition of essential self or substance within this unfathomable Source—where the mind is functioning “in the different mode of being-with reality, rather than of reflecting upon it.”

Personalist monists do not remain passively within this isolated mode of being-with the Source. Their introvertive contemplation is redirected in an emanative giving of creative expression. Evans refers to this process as subsequent translucent mysticism. Here the monistic mystic transmits those energies arising from the monistic Source of self, in the context of the conceptual framework she had previously abandoned in monistic transparency. The monistic mystic becomes a translucent medium of personalist and dynamic forces emanating from the experience—not an agent of passive and impersonal monism. She or he expresses elements quite foreign to the actual state of monistic immersion; indeed, the mystic expresses elements only associated with a theistic Divine. The monist becomes an active, personal and moral medium of that which arises from this Source.

Theo-monistic experiences thus help us to understand the personalist orientation of so many significant monistic mystics. No doubt, like theistic and monistic accounts, theo-monistic experiences can become highly ramified by the mystic’s own theological and metaphysical socio-religious background, as the monist attempts to explain and justify her personalist orientation in light of her or his conceptions of this Source. Indeed, if a personalist monist is inhibited by a solely impersonal metaphysical ideal, their experiential accounts can involve confusions and incongruities in light of espoused doctrine. But once we bracket out the ramifications of various personal monistic and theistic mystics we can find a common account of transformative processes which supports three different types of experiences: the personalist theistic, the impersonalist monist, and the theo-monistic. Theo-monism draws theistic and monistic experiences coherently together in an account of a spiritual transformation which explains and justifies both types, and it explicitly shows the coherence of related transformative experiences conveyed through different symbolic interpretations.

There are unresolved issues surrounding this typology of introvertive mysticism, perhaps the most significant being the status of other mystical experiences and that of the impersonal monist. At this point I can only suggest that a theo-monistic hierarchy of experiences can incorporate paranormal, numinous, and extrovertive or nature experiences into its framework, explaining and justifying the realizations in terms of the very nature of the theo-monistic ideal. In regard to the impersonal monist who remains passively isolated in monistic repose, I would suggest that there are various levels and depths of monistic immersion within which the mystic can reach and to which she must be open. These might include: a solipsistic isolation or Self-absorption associated, for example, with the Quietists in Christian mysticism and Sankhya yoga in Hindu mysticism; the sublation of the Self into the unified One, as we find in Advaita Vedanta and Neo-Platonism; and various degrees of theo-monistic realizations, where the monistic mystic gradually realizes elements that can only be associated with a creative and personal Real, and comes to share in and express these personalist insights and energies of the creative Real that issue from the monistic Source with which she has identified.

A theo-monistic interpretation of the processes and experiences of mysticism does indeed propose a theistic hierarchy in the sense that it assumes that there is a creative Source which consists of both impersonal and personal elements, and that this Source is closely connected as Creator to this world and human beings. This of course is a phenomenological explanation which does not correspond to some doctrines espoused by certain monistic mystics concerning the nature of the Real and this realm of existence. Nevertheless, this interpretation of mystical experiences does not derive from nor rest upon the interpretative framework of any particular tradition, even though I have focused here upon Eckhart and Ruusbroec in drawing it out. Indeed, it is open to a very wide variety of theological and spiritual symbolism. Also, it explains the active and moral orientations of so many monistic mystics, a creative and personalist focus which is such an anomaly in traditions that conceive only of a monistic Real, and espouse a non-dual, static, and impersonal monistic experience as the spiritual ideal.

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One Response to Monistic and Theistic Mystical Experiences: Part Two

  1. Actually the people whose founders were absorbed in the monistic Real, and espouse a non-dual, static, and impersonal monistic experience as the spiritual ideal also have had to temper this approach by talking about compassion, universal love etc.

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