Mysticism and Dissent

This short essay will address William James’ 1902 publication Varieties of Religious Experience (specifically Lectures XVI and XVII, Mysticism), and attempt to draw differing conclusions concerning the source(s) and authoritativeness of mystical states of consciousness. My argument is that religious/mystical experience cannot by itself prove the existence of God (argument from experience), but nonetheless remains subjectively and psychologically important. While I will support my thesis with a number of sources, this essay will attempt to draw primarily from Varieties: Mysticism. First, I will look at mysticism itself through James's definition, and then wade through some of C. B. Martin’s dissenting opinion. But first, the terms used by James need to be vetted, so that we better understand exactly what we are talking about when we say “mystical experience.”

James’ Four Defining Points of Mysticism

Beginning his lecture on mysticism, James asks, “What does the expression ‘mystical states of consciousness’ mean? How do we part off mystical states from other states?”(i) He follows by offering four points of peculiar psychological/empirical factors that, if evident, classify an experience as mystical. (1) Ineffability, in that “mystical states are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.”(ii) (2) Noetic Quality, meaning that these “states” have a certain element of knowledge embedded within them; “they are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain.”(iii) (3) Transiency, meaning mystical states are mostly temporary and unsustainable, and finally (4) Passivity suggests, “The mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance”(iv) during the course of the experience.

In the above clarifications, James defines the mystical experience. For the purposes of this essay, points 1 and 2 are the more salient. Transiency (3) is simply the understanding that these states are temporary, and adds nothing to this argument. The Passivity (4) claim further dilutes the conclusions arrived at in (2) by drawing even more problematic deductions from these experiences. Passivity is James’s understanding of “abeyance” (the mystic being controlled by a superior power), which is a purely subjective interpretation on the mystic’s part that his feelings originate outside of himself, that causality is from God or a godlike entity. The argument whether mystical states are purely psychological, or originate outside the individual, will be dealt with later in this essay, but at the outset it needs be understood that there is a general disagreement on this point, between the theists and non-theists.

Ineffability and Noetic Quality are, in James’s opinion, the leading indicators of mystical experience. For a form of consciousness to be categorized as “mystical” it must possess this sense of the ineffable, awe and wonder. The mind must be transfixed and left speechless insofar as communicating that occurrence remains. This quality of ineffability, with its metalanguage and use of symbol, remains transcendent of religious or linear boundaries, and is scattered through the accounts of mystics from all ages and creeds. But what exactly are they experiencing? Is it, again, self-emotive or caused by some other force?

Finally, James’s conclusions invoke the possibility of an imparted quality, the Noetic Quality, within these experiences. They offer something to the one experiencing them, revelation or some form of knowledge previously unknown. But this knowledge or revelation is nearly impossible to translate and the mystic is left with the lingering felling of transcendence. Their knowledge, if it is imparted at all, has become stationary, or simply a psychologically comforting feeling about the oneness of things or transcendent beauty of life. James concludes that these definitions comprise the “mystical group.” In short: A person has an emotional experience wherein something profound is felt or perceived. The experience doesn’t last long, but he/she is left thinking (usually) God had something to do with it.

Knowing something then about mystical experience, what types of conclusions does James draw concerning their authority for the one experiencing them, or for anyone else? He states rather boldly, “as a matter of psychological fact, mystical states of a well-pronounced and emphatic sort are usually authoritative over those who have them.” But this type of exegesis, or mystical postpartum, isn’t always authoritative, and many questions are left lingering.

Mystical Encounters

It may help at this point to put “mystical experience” in context by using an analogy to make the case. George Mavrodes, in his Belief in God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion relates the story of a woman hearing church bells on New Year’s Eve.
I have suddenly realized for the first time the greatness of God!…As the bells rang out, telling of the inexorable and endless march of time, it has been borne in upon her that God was infinitely greater than she had ever imagined. The voice of God had spoken to her through the voice of the bells, and she had answered. Her answer could be read in her radiant face.(v)
She felt the power of “God” in that moment (an exegetical decision on her part), and no one is in a position to say that she in fact did not. But, even though our woman (lets call her Jane) claims she felt the presence of God in the moment during the ringing of the bells, that is all it is, a claim. For her, this might very well remain an important psychological experience, but for others, probably not.

Jane’s experience was certainly ineffable and possessed that noetic quality in that she took something away from the experience. For Jane, God exists and she has felt His spirit, she has had conformation of her faith. James would say to Jane that she was in her epistemic rights to draw this conclusion. But, C. B. Martin would challenge Jane’s assumption that A therefore B follows deductively. Martin would hold to the position that Jane had a psychological experience, not an existential one, and through her own exegesis found something within the experience that wasn’t originally there. “The only thing I can establish beyond correction on the basis of having certain feelings and sensations is that I have these feelings and sensations.” Jane states “I felt God,” and there is no doubt that she means it. Psychologically though, this statement is very similar to other statements like

(1) I feel the stars are aligned today....
(2) Sometimes when I’m in danger I can feel my guardian angel near by.

These statements are not provable by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is Jane’s “I felt god” claim, they are all of the sort and class of psychology, and not empirical at all. An empirical claim would be able to be tested and proved, and repeatedly seen across other cases and incidences. The above claims, important as they are to the individual, don’t actually do anything for the world outside of the individual, and thus are destined to remain important only as far as they remain psychologically meaningful to the beneficiary of that experience.

Authoritativeness of Mystical Experience

There is a sense in which mystics tend to fit their experiences within a preexisting conceptual framework, the belief structure that previously surrounded them. We have very little evidence of mystics denying their previously held religious beliefs after a mystical experience; indeed many of the religious paths (Yoga, Sufism) are aimed at producing variations of mystical experiences, and have been historically successful in this reproduction. But the argument because “I have direct experience (knowledge, acquaintance, apprehension) of God, therefore I have valid reason to believe that God exists,”(vii) could as easily be translated into, because I had this experience as a Christian, it thus proves my previously held Christian beliefs. Michael Martin confronts this point in his essay Religious Beliefs and Basic Beliefs (a response to Alvin Plantinga’s The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology) by noting that certain experiences can trigger different reactions in different people. Whereas Jane heard the bells and thought of God, equally “beholding the starry heavens can trigger a pantheistic belief or a purely aesthetic response without any religious component. Sometimes no particular response or belief at all is triggered. From what we know about the variations of religious belief, it is likely that people would not have theistic belief when they beheld the starry heavens if they had been raised in nontheistic environments.”(viii) So, the question remains, is mystical experience authoritative? Are the mystic’s visions footnotes by which we can validate the existence of God? Do they justify the prophets? Or are they simply meaningful psychological experiences that we choose to interpret depending upon our particular bent.

James is very careful here to say that no absolute authority outside the individuals experience can rationally be drawn—but throughout the history of Religion we find great emphasis given to certain individuals mystical experience. Muhammad’s repeated visitations by the angel Gabriel weren’t witnessed by anyone else, but are generally accepted as religious fact by most Muslims. Joseph Smith claimed visitation by the angel Moroni, and again, it is taken as truth. We often believe because of another’s mystical experiences, and act out of that belief regardless James’s caution that we do not.

For James, these mystical states confirm the presence of God, the existence of distinct and other states of consciousness. Though he doesn’t necessarily say it in those terms, he hints at it; the mystic, he claims, should be above the reach of the skeptics. Jane, our case subject, is in this category. Her experience was unique, and to the extent that it dealt with “other” states of consciousness, incommunicable. For Martin, there is an underlying problem here:
Because ‘having direct experience of God’ does not admit the relevance of a society of tests and checking procedures it places itself in the company of the other ways of knowing which preserve their self-sufficiency, ‘uniqueness’ and ‘incommunicability’ by making a psychological and not an existential claim…a perfect refuge because no one can prove him wrong, but its unassailability has been bought at the price of making no claim about the world beyond the claim about his own state of mind.(ix)
This is perhaps the most important piece of philosophical dissent against the perceived authoritativeness of any psychological, mystical state…especially to the experiencing individual. It begs the question, a very important question, about the very authority these experiences could or should hold over the ones having them.

There exists a latent and creeping element of danger within mystical experience, in that there may be someone, other than the mystic, who takes their experience deadly serious, and may even build his or her belief on it. We have only to think back through the religious traditions of the West to find test cases for this scenario. The Old Testament is replete with mystical encounters, from Jacob struggling with the deity, to Abraham and Isaac, Ezekiel and many others. The Bible is a book founded on men talking to God, enjoying noetic union with the deity. There are many Christian literalists who take these things at face value, even preach sermons decrying the unbelievers for their obdurate stubbornness in accepting these experiences, and in turn use them as prima facie reason for belief in YHVH. Would James argue against Protestants or Catholics, even Jews, basing their own faith on the mystical experience of Biblical prophets, or is it only modern experience that is treated in this kind of inferior way? Remember Smith? There are now millions of faith-based believers who have established their faith on the improvable mystical experiences of a young New York teenager.

My primary complaint with James’s lectures isn’t with his conclusions. James, again, stated emphatically that mystical experience could only have authority for the individual having that experience, and while I might disagree with that, it is a well-intentioned assumption. But James leaves something out of his study, perhaps the most important part. Mystical experience can be very dangerous in how it is witnessed, understood, disseminated and received (by others). Again, Joseph Smith; a charismatic young man comes along and spins a story so compelling, so unbelievably believable, that invariably there are going to be people that follow this individual. His story contains some compelling answers, and some complex theology, and a lot of personal gravitas. His mystical experience of God told him to start a religion of his own, and that he did. But is Mormonism an entirely good thing? Of course that question is too large to tackle here, but my short answer would be an emphatic no. At best, Mormonism is neutral. Basing an entire religion on the personal experience of one individual is a very dangerous trend to be setting, as it allows room for error to be made in that one individuals experience and the parsing of it. Perhaps this is why Buddhism is ever-more the universal religion than Christianity—that it isn’t based upon another’s experience but upon a process of becoming a better human being; through deeper and deeper understanding we may all yet “see,” and here are the basic steps to do just that.(x)

Smith advertised his mystical experiences like a salesman; he used them to convince others to follow his odd brand of Christianity. To the credit of his creativity, those experiences were rich in detail and revelation (of the sort he was selling). But we can imagine others, like a Charles Manson or a Jim Jones, who with similar cunning and strength of personality, convince others to do something that is certainly not in their own best interest, nor that of their children. James doesn’t caution his listeners strongly enough against accepting another’s mystical (or religious) experience, and the latent dangers involved in that act. Indeed, religion itself is a long parade of people kow-towing beneath brazen images of seers and saints, and James doesn’t once point this out.

This idea of the latent dangers of interpreting mystical experience doesn’t get enough ink. C. B. Martin and I would insist mystical experiences remain psychological important and cannot be entirely tossed aside, but taking them as factual and authoritative, even for oneself, can be dangerous, unless they are put in context. This context would be something like a deeper and older tradition acting as the tempering agent against ones fantastic experiences. In this way, Smith was able to channel his new mystical experiences (if in fact he had any) into older Masonic and Christian traditions(xi), and thus they were tempered in the fire of history, disallowed to take on an entirely new flavor and point of view. Because of this, Mormonism isn’t as dangerous to the individual as say, Scientology, which isn’t based on any tradition at all and makes very bold claims about the individual that have no basis in history or philosophy; they are a traditionless religion of the sort that rise and fall with successive generations, never finding a niche because they fail to draw on the traditions of the past.(xii) And here is the irony; though we can never accept another’s experience as basis for belief, we can look at the history of various religious traditions and decide, based upon the voluminous sources available, the “truths” contained therein. The basic moral idea of “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” is found in many faiths. There are others embedded within the multicolored fabric of religious scripture, and it is these basic articles that should act as our guide when either having or parsing a mystical experience. Otherwise the element of danger, for oneself and others, is too real (and my caution extends to nontheists, who may need the voluminous works of philosophy to parse any mystical experience he or she may have).

James’s almost pantheistic approach to understanding this complex subject gives him a very open mind when it comes to finding truth in other traditions, but he never really attempts to stake out some line which shouldn’t be crossed. Would he say Scientology is a live, forced and momentous decision for someone raised in a community of scientologists?(xiii) There has to be some filter through which acceptance of another’s view of this world is processed. Faith is dangerous; it is perhaps the most dangerous element of human psychology. It can cause all kinds of trouble for ourselves and others because it enjoys a “sacred” tradition, off-limits from normal lines of questioning. As Martin said, “no one can prove him wrong.” No one can prove Smith wrong. His theophanic vision of God and the Christ on that morning in 1820 was a genuine, so far as Smith relates, mystical vision. It contained all the necessarily elements of James’s basic characteristics of mystical experience, and so far as anyone knows, happened as Smith said it did. No one can prove him wrong, but the opposite of that is also true.

George Santayana once said, “Religions are better or worse, never true or false.”(xiv) We can have more hope in the benefits of Mormonism than that of Scientology(xv), entirely because it is better, it gets closer to the truth and is founded, more or less, in tested traditions. But does Mormonism get close to the great human religions like Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Catholicism? No, certainly not. The visions of “mystics” can be as dangerous as they are profitable. Caution is called for, pragmatism is needed; otherwise we may all yet be made fools of.


James is to be applauded for his groundbreaking study on mysticism. He makes important conclusions about the authoritativeness of mystical experience and its defining characteristics. But questions remain. As previously mentioned, where I think he misses the mark is precisely where a hole in his logic appears. He is all too willing to use Saint Teresa and others to back up his argument, to use their mystical experiences as proof that a deeper or different consciousness exists, and that the mystics have found it. But he ends by saying that these experiences are not “authoritative” for anyone else but the one experiencing them, and we are all left wondering at his slight-of-hand. C. B. Martin’s response then is a justified argument that deserves further study and consideration, because too many gaps remain in James’s reasoning.

Perhaps I would suggest an updated version of James’ argument, one that could make use of a more dissenting opinion. I don’t doubt the uniqueness of certain “conscious” states of being, but to let them go unvetted, to let them remain standing as they are is to give too much power to the mystic. Yes, certain experiences may, for many individuals, be “mystical,” or indefinable in our current psychological milieu. But the more important question is “so what?” Or a better question perhaps: “Does that experience make you a better human being?” If so, show me the fruits of that better life. Show me the flower that has come from the seed of that fruitful encounter, and as a lover of flowers I’ll sniff it out. As a botanist, I’ll examine the petals. On July 9th, at 11:23 am, your life was changed. Good, lets see the results…and if they are shown to be beneficial perhaps then we can say that this experience meant something, was psychologically important, was cathartic. Beyond that, what can we say? If God was perceived to be involved, fine, I guess. But, the buck must stop when the mystic begins to claim authority to recruit others toward his particular brand of insight. Again, it is very dangerous for others to believe on the basis of another’s religious experience. It leads inevitably to spiritually hacked-up new-age novels about conversations with god, or other such nonsense. Does it benefit anyone other than the one selling something?

Mystical experiences prove nothing beyond the capacity of humans to experience “other” states of consciousness. The further afield we get from this understanding, the more our wanderings lead into the dark and dangerous wilderness of conjecture.



(i) Steven M. Cahn, Ten Essential Texts in the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 395.
(ii) Ibid.
(iii) Ibid., 395.
(iv) Ibid.
(v) George Mavrodes, Belief In God: A Study in the Epistemology of Religion (New York: University Press of America, 2008), 68-69.
(vi) Cahn, Ten Essential Texts, 428.
(vii) Ibid.
(viii) Ibid., 393.
(ix) Ibid., 433.
(x) I am making broad generalizations here that remain mostly unsupported.
(xi) For a fair accounting of Smith’s theology, see Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History. Smith, it is well known, was fascinated with the intersections between Christianity and the occult, or Masonic.
(xii) In a sense, this is why Christianity and Islam have done so well. They based their theology on existing traditions, drawing upon that history and tapping into that deep intellectual and spiritual reservoir. Also, we cannot imagine Buddhism without Hinduism, an earlier spiritual tradition that it was no doubt based upon. But this theory does nothing to establish where the first causes of religion came from, or what, if anything, they were based upon.
(xiii) James’ theory in The Will To Believe confronts this idea of forced, momentous and live decisions, especially where belief in God is concerned. While it is too much to go into here, Michael Martin does a fair job at responding to James thesis in William James and the Will to Believe.
(xiv) Cahn, Ten Essential Texts, 439.
(xv) I use Scientology here as a prototypical example of a religion based upon the madness of one individual – and not necessarily one who had a mystical experience. Scientology is more dangerous because L. Ron Hubbard makes no claims of “vision,” but tries to sell it as a scientifically based spiritual practice, when the science isn’t really there. It is no wonder, after seeing the rise and spread of Scientology, that humans are dopes (and I say that with empathy). I can understand belief in God, and it’s rich history of practice through the myriad faiths, but to base a religion on scientific practices when the science isn’t there is an extraordinary and brazen feat of chutzpa (I had heard he did it all as a bet, which in retrospect seems very plausible).

D. Reese Zollinger
© 2009

Title Mysticism and Dissent is inspired by Steven Ozment's publication (London: Yale University Press, 1973) of the same name. From the jacket:
It is characteristic of social innovators in all ages that they have advanced the new by invoking the old. This seeming paradox has never been truer than in the sixteenth century. The most radical nonconformists - men now regarded as precursors of the "modern" trends in social protest - looked backward for inspiration and justification to the religious writings of an earlier time. In the works of medieval mysticism these learned dissenters found a tradition to wield against tradition, a view of man's nature and God's design that could challenge, even undermine, ruling ideologies and institutions.