Universal Mysticism and the Christian Theistic Paradigm

Intro

Regardless of the historical era or geographical location, mystical experiences have fascinated men and caused them to ponder their existence and universe. Not only did such experiences claim some kind of knowledge of the Divine or Absolute, but they also implied by their very existence that such experiences are available to humanity. Entire philosophical schools and religious sects grew up around the possibility of attaining some kind of insight or experience of Highest Reality. And those who claimed to have had an original mystical experience hitherto unknown soon found themselves with disciples searching for the same experience (e.g., Gautama Buddha).

As knowledge of the world grew it became apparent that many different cultures across the globe all contain in some shape or form the knowledge and practice of mystical experience. From the greatest world religion to the smallest tribal folk religion, mystical experience seemed interwoven into humanity's cosmology and ritual. This fact appears to support the idea of a universal mystical experience available to all men of all places and ages.

As pointed out earlier, such experience has a two-fold implication, namely: (a) experience of a mystical nature is attainable by humanity, and (b) mystical experiences may (possibly) allow insight into and/or experience of its object. This object is generally presumed by those having such experiences to be an aspect of (the) Highest Reality.

Unanimity

Early attempts to prove the universal nature of all mystical experiences generally focused upon the second of these two implications. Attempts such as Aldous Huxley's "Perennial Philosophy" revolved around the idea that underlying the many diverse mystical traditions lay a universal Object of which all mystical experiences partake. One obstacle to such a theory is that it requires a radical reductionism eliminating the many unique and possibly central facets particular experiences claimed. And yet the notion of a universal divine Object which makes Itself available to all men equally gripped the religious imaginations of many who were willing to overlook this obstacle.

Several elaborations were made on this original "theory on unanimity". Rudolph Otto, for example, in The Idea of the Holy (1917) claimed that every individual possesses the capacity to experience one and the same Object, the "Holy". For Otto, this experience is caused by the "sensus numinis", an innate sense of the divine implanted within the "pure reason" of each mind. This "sense" then operates independently of all sense perception. This is to say that within the psyche of each individual exists a unique (sui generis) faculty which intuits a wholly other Being which is both terrible yet alluring, an Object "mysterium tremendum et fascinans". Otto concluded that all religions and faith mediate an authentic experience of salvation, since all religions of the world are equally the result of this innate sensus numinis.

From the traditional Christian theistic perspective, such a salvific theory of unanimity precludes the necessity of "special" revelation, a category under which Scripture has been historically placed. In place of Scripture as a special conduit for salvific knowledge, for Otto, the faculty by which the mystical experience arises is itself "sui generis" (i.e., one-of-a-kind, and thus special), distributed to all evenly, and apart from which there is no other source of religious perception. Thus for Otto, the core of religion is an unmediated universal sense of the Holy. A significant implication of Otto's proposal is that the will or intent to self-disclose by the holy Object is not viewed as relevant to the individual's ability to "sense" the Holy. In Christian parlance, God does not "reveal himself" but rather the sensus numinus "reveals God".

Another elaboration on the theory of unanimity can be found in the works of Vivekenanda, a well-received spokesman for Advaita Vedanta Hinduism in the West. As a Vedanta Hindu, Vivekenanda refers to and conceptualizes Highest Reality as Brahman, the "personal" Absolute of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism. According to Vedanta cosmology, under Brahman fall relatively Lesser Realities which the other religions of the world confess as their God or gods. Since even these Lesser Realities are true emanations from the Highest Reality (Brahman), all religions may be said to, in essence, worship the same Object, Brahman. Thus Vivekenanda finds no obstacle in the fact that the many religious and mystical experiences conflict with each other, since all realities, from the very least to the very greatest are various aspects and emanations of Brahman. Whereas aspects differ so also experiences of those aspects would be expected to differ.

Vivekenanda's attempt to blanket all religious reality as emanations of Brahman undoubtedly creates incoherencies within the traditional Christian theistic perspective. Such a view reduces the Judeao.Christian God to the status of either a deceptive Being making claims as to there being "No other God before me" or a mis-guided deity unaware that He is in fact simply an illusory emanation of an even higher Being. In either scenario Judaeo-Christian theism is severely comprimised since the core of this theism is grounded in claims made by God as to His uniqueness and sovereignty. Vivekenanda would have the Judaeo-Christian theist believe that such apparent contradiction results from the Judaeo-Christian experience of a different emanation of Brahman than, for example, the Buddhist. This explanation, however raises many questions, not least of which involves the status of "truth statements". For if God spoke falsehood regarding Himself and God is an emanation of Brahman, does not Brahman participate in falsehood? Or if questions of "truth and non-truth" are proposed as simply human constructs not to be foisted upon Brahman, then how might anyone, including Vivekenanda, deem Brahman's words more accurate than a child's? Questions might also be raised regarding Vivekenanda's assurance that he is not also simply referring to an emanation of a Higher Reality when he talks of Brahman, since he implies such stellar religious figures as Jesus and Moses were unable to rightly discern what/who they were experiencing.

For these and other reasons the theory of unanimity was found to be generally inadequate as an explanatory theory capable of accounting for all the data while remaining logically and experientially coherent. Thus discussions of mystical experience gradually began to be framed within a new model, that of Pluralism.

Pluralism

As research into the nature and truth claims of mystical experiences continued, it became apparent that the differences among the various traditions were not limited to the merely superficial aspects. Greater differences of language and kind seemed to support the assumption that such experiences and/or their Objects were indeed also of various kinds and from this observation theorists began to build more coherent theories based on the conviction that mystical experiences are of a pluralistic nature. Thus, rather than reduce the various experiences down to something which is unrecognizable by all, pluralists built theories upon detailed investigations of aspects and truth claims of the experiences themselves.

Based on the accounts and apparent nature of mystical experience, it had been assumed that such an experience implied an unmediated encounter with a single Object of Highest Reality. It was on this premise that those favoring unanimity emphasized the "universality" of the experience. Such a claim also necessitates direct access (non-mediacy) to the Object. For if media, or mystical "portals" exist there may in fact be as many objects as portals. (Thus Zen Buddhism yields one Object, Sufi mysticism yields another Object, etc.) Thus even within Pluralist theories attempting explanations of mystical experiences, the notion of non-mediacy abounds.

R.C. Zaehner argued against Huxley's perennial philosophy in Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (1957). The focus of Zaehner's criticism lies in unanimity's proposed reductionism whereby all mystical experiences are combined into one all-encompassing category of experience. Instead, Zaehner proposes three categories of mystical experiences: the panenhenic, the monistic, and the theistic.

Panenhenic mysticism is that mysticism which involves a natural trigger, such as Otto's "sensus numinis" or Carl Jung's "collective unconscious". Such mysticism may also be drug induced.

Monistic mysticism involves an experience whereby the individual, through self-effort, taps into an impersonal (monistic) Object. Such mysticism includes many Hindu and Buddhist traditions in which Wisdom, Emptiness or Nirvana are sought by means of ascetic practices involving meditation. (In fact, Zaehner includes all of Hinduism and Buddhism in this category, a classification which produced much criticism, since several schools in each of these religions view the Object as personal.)

Theistic mysticism involves the experience of a personal Object, and therefore takes on relational aspects. Thus, for example, many Christian mystics have expressed that love of God is the basis of the experience.

According to Zaehner, the personal aspect of theistic mysticism disallows unity with the monists' impersonal experience or the panenhenics' natural experience. All three categories are mutually exclusive. From this classification, it is plain that Zaehner has based his theory upon the presupposition of unmediacy. For Zaehner's three categories derive from what the mystics claimed to have experienced. In other words, this classification assumes that mystics in fact experienced and accurately related their experiences from which Zaehner extrapolates three different types: Panenhenic (Nature), monistic, or theistic.

Arguing against Zaehner's assumption of accurate mystical interpretation, W.T. Stace, in Mysticism and Philosophy (1960) claims that Zaehner's entire premise stands on faulty reasoning. According to Stace, Zaehner builds his system of classification upon "interpretations" rather than the experiences themselves. Stace thus questions the notion of non-mediacy and sees the need for distinguishing between the experience itself and the interpretation of the experience.

Contextuality

Though arguing explicitly against Stace's attempt to discern the pure experience from the interpretation, Steven Katz (1978) continues the trajectory away from non-mediacy which Stace begins. Katz claims that Stace vastly oversimplifies the complex epistemological process "with its linguistic, social, historical, and conceptual contextuality", through which one experiences and interprets the mystical. Katz' basic presupposition is that there are NO pure experiences and points out that all experiences, whether daily or mystical, are in fact mediated through this complex epistemological process. This implies that not only are all interpretations subject to contextualities, but that "the experience itself as well as the form in which it is reported is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to, and which shape his experience." (26)

In other words, according to Katz, the human mind plays a vital role in the perception and interpretation of the Object experienced. Pre-existing concepts within the mind cause the Object to appear to the mind in ways meeting the contextual expectations of the mystic. Thus, for example, the Christian mystic is said to experience the Trinity due to preconceived concepts of what the Object should or must be and the Buddhist expecting to experience Emptiness via satori will likewise experience just that, due to his contextual preconceptions.

Although there is much merit in Katz' theory in its recognition of the importance of contextuality and cognitive processes, it also leaves unresolved several important questions. For example, to what degree does the context govern the experience? Taking this theory at its extreme would bring us very close to the conclusion that the context creates the Object itself, and that there is in fact no objectively real Object. This conclusion actually has significant parallels with Otto's "sensus numinis" in which the faculty alone is said to be the vehicle through which salvation is realized. But such an extreme conclusion is not what Katz seems to intend.

Moving toward the opposite extreme, we might conclude that all mystical experiences are indeed of one Real universal Object with all apparent differences in mystical experiences deriving from the effect of various contextual concepts. This conclusion in fact brings us quite close to the unanimity position of the perennial philosophy.

Is this the conclusion Katz intends? Is Katz positing one Real Object of which all mystical experiences partake, albeit through significant contextual preconceptions?

Although Katz does not explicitly answer this question., he clearly elevates the role of the contextual above the ability of the Object to overcome such contexts and directly influence the mystic. Regarding the impersonal ascetic traditions, he states, "the different states of experience which go by the name nirvana, devekuth, fana, etc., are not the ground but the outcome of the complex epistemological activity." (62) Regarding the "given", a term which Katz uses to mean the "real", he claims that "All 'givens' are also the product of the processes of choosing, shaping, and receiving." (59) Elsewhere he states, "These constructive conditions of consciousness produce the grounds on which mystical experience is possible at all." (63)

It seems quite clear from these statements that the contextual concepts are the "Ground" for the variety of mystical experiences. Unless Katz has reserved for himself another use for the term "ground", he does not consider the basic underlying reality to be dependent upon the existence of an Object, a possible basis for his confession that he does "not hold one mystical tradition to be superior or 'normative'." (65) Such a confession would be necessary, one would think, if in fact the various traditions are merely expressions of culturally and contextually derived expectations.

The confession of the traditional Christian theist, however, is in the objective reality of God as the ground of the Christian's experience and salvation. If this objective reality of God is replaced with the subjective by-product of cultural expectation, then also the objectivity of Scripture and salvation itself must be reduced to the status of subjective wish-fulfillment.

Without disagreeing with Katz' basic tenet, namely, that complex epistemological processes are involved in and during the mystical experience, we must rightly question whether these processes are indeed the "ground" of the experience. Special revelation, as the Christian theist knows it, does not fit into Katz' theory, since special revelation implies a reshaping of the context and thought structures of the recipient. This restructuring or recontextualizing is possible through the introduction of new knowledge and insight received through a revelation grounded in God. The entire Judaeo-Christian religious tradition is built upon the (faith in and) assumption of the existence of historical special revelation. Thus for the Christian theist, Katz' theory of a contextual ground for all mystical experiences leaves much to be desired.

The Christian Theistic Framework

More specifically, Christian theism necessitates special revelation by which knowledge of an exclusive (i.e., "special") nature is transmitted from a personal God to humanity. This knowledge is not grounded in the receptor's contextual expectations, but in the will and providence of a personal God. Without denying the role of the human psyche, which Christian theism considers to be created wonderfully by God for the very purpose of communicating with Him (Genesis 1-2), only a significant underestimate of God's ability would suggest that human cultural expectations preclude God from freely communicating to humanity. For this reason, any Christian attempt to explain mystical experience must avoid one the one hand a denial of the existence of the Object, and on the other the proposal of a universally accessible object Object such that special revelation becomes obsolete. And of course, Christian theism cannot allow for the existence of multiple Objects. [1]

Thus due to the presuppositional (and experiential) constraints of traditional Christian theism, a very clear framework presents itself within which statements regarding the apparently universal phenomena of mystical experiences must be made if coherency is to be attained. We might also expect that Christian theism, as a true worldview, would enable an explanation of all observed data while maintaining internal coherency (the test, I hope, for any adopted worldview).

Winfried Corduan in Mysticism (1991) advances a theory of a natural mystical faculty that can be "activated" either purely subjectively or by objective causes. In illustrating this, he draws on the analogy of the human capacity for the emotion of happiness. One may become happy either subjectively (e.g., by imagining good thoughts) or objectively (e.g., by being given a present). In the same way, Corduan claims, mystical experiences can be either self-induced or other-induced.

As an evangelical Christian, Corduan is here attempting to define mystical experience in a way congruous with his theism. And indeed, his theory will in no way pervert the requirements of Christian theistic framework outlined above. We can agree that perhaps there exists within every human, as part of its spiritual and psychical equipment, a capacity or faculty which allows the otherwise sense-oriented individual to experience a higher spiritual reality. And by allowing either subjective or objective causes, Corduan has paved the way by which a Christian theist might begin to grapple with the many diverse truth claims arising out of what appear to be similar mystical experiences.

Claiming that some experiences are activated subjectively, and thus the product of the mystic's mind, will provide for Corduan a solution to the problem of conflicting truth claims stemming from diverse experiences of apparently different Objects. His allowance for various means of activation of the faculty implies that not all mystical experiences encounter the Absolute Object. In fact, it is possible, using Corduan's theory to propose that any experience not meeting the truth standards of Christian theism is actually subjective in nature (whether we speak here of a subjective Object or interpretation).

Though Corduan's theory opens possible solutions to several challenges faced by the Christian theistic framework, upon closer examination we must question whether it provides an adequate explanation for the universal phenomena of mystical experience. Corduan has posited a universal "faculty" with a dual activation, one subjective, the other objective. Previous obstacles in reconciling the varied experiences and interpretation of mystical experiences are circumvented through Corduan's implied proposal that any experience not falling within the theistic framework ought to be deemed subjective while those found within it may be cautiously deemed objective in origin. (Of course Corduan's theory results in the need to address whether or not the Christian theistic framework is in fact an appropriate standard whereby other traditions' mystical experiences can and should be judged, an assumption this paper makes and leaves undemonstrated.)

Whereas Corduan's system hinges on the need/ability to discern which mystical experiences are subjective and which objective, careful consideration to his proposed criteria is necessary. What precisely are we discerning and how reliable are our own judgmenets regarding others' experiences?

It will be recalled that Corduan used the analogy of human happiness in illustrating his notion of the multi-activated universal faculty. In his discussion regarding the various causes of happiness, he writes: "A person can feel happy for all sorts of reasons: imaginary, subjective, fictitious, objective, external, religious, and so on. We cannot infer, simply from someone's being happy, the cause of the happiness, but we can pass judgment on the realities that the person alleges to be behind the happiness." (76) The point Corduan here makes is that evaluation of mystical experience is possible only when we consider the objective aspects of the phenomena, namely, the truth claims stemming from the experience, the plausability of what the mystic says regarding the perceived Object. Corduan's purpose for drawing this analogy is to show that the diversity of experiences arising from the natural mystical capacity may indeed have several possible causes. Thus, just as we may distinguish the validity of an individual's happiness, so we may judge the validity of a particular experience.

But is this truly so? Let's investigate by applying Corduan's analogy to a thought experiment in order to ascertain what sort of reasonable judgments we may arrive at regarding the happiness of an individual. The scenario is this:

We come across a beaming individual and ask, "Why are you so happy?". Or if the person is really excited she will voluntarily share her story with us. Either way, let us suppose that the woman is elated due to her belief that the president is at her house this very moment. Desiring to investigate further, we quickly run over to her house, but upon entering we find the president nowhere. The woman adamantly claims that the president WAS there. We then question the maid who informs us that the president has never been to that house. The woman then suggests that perhaps a man resembling the president had been in her living room. The maid agrees that in fact a man greatly resembling the president had been in the living room at the time spoken of by the woman.

Although the woman in this situation was definitely mistaken regarding the cause of her happiness, we find that this is due to a misinterpretation of objective data (a visitor's presence), rather than due to a simple, in Corduan's terms, subjective activation of the emotion of happiness. Rather, this is an example of a person who mistakenly (and innocently) claimed to have encountered Object A, but in fact encountered Object B, due to expectation and/or similarity of appearance. Of course, in evaluating a mystical experience there is neither house nor maid by which we might evaluate the woman's claim. We would need to rely solely upon what the woman's said. It is for this reason that in the quote above Corduan rightly states that we (only) "can pass judgment on the realities that the person alleges to be behind the happiness".

But if we rely solely upon the claim of the individual who has had the experience (or the account of the person's interpretation), how might we question its validity? In the happiness analogy, common sense tells us that most people are aware of the cause of their happiness, and that only the severely psychotic mistake subjective causes for objective causes. If this universal mystical faculty proposed by Corduan is of similar kind, do we assume that the individual is likely to misunderstand his experience via natural capacity? Or do we, as with those who are happy, assume that the indivdual above any other is most likely to have the most accurate explanation regarding the cause of his/her experience? If Corduan's happiness analogy is maintained, we would expect only a very small percentage of mystical experiences of needing reinterpretation. And as regards this small percentage, reinterpretation at best will consist of a one-to-one debate with the mystic regarding what he or she experienced. In such a debate we are without data, for the only "data" here is the past experience of the mystic.

This thought experiment yields the conclusion that merely pointing out that there are different means of activating a natural mystical capacity in no way actually provides a solution to the challenges faced in an attempt at offering a Christian theistic explanation for the diversity of mystical experiences. Suggesting different "activations" results in the responsibility of locating meaningful criteria and bases upon which one is discerned from the others.

Proposal for a Biblical Theology of World Religions

This paper proposes that for the Christian theist the development of a system within which universal data regarding mystical experiences is adequately accounted for while maintaining Scriptural integrity will in fact involve the formulation of what we here call a biblical theology of world religions. Any attempt to arrive at such a biblical theology of world religions must first identify what allowances Scripture makes for such experiences and then seek to understand such experiences' relation to the God of Scripture. This paper suggests that a correct understanding of Scripture and its implications will and must provide a sufficient framework within which the variety of religio-spiritual phenomena may be adequately dealt with and accounted for.

As mentioned earlier, Christian theism recognizes one Absolute and Personal Truth, a Godhead. This Godhead is relational by nature and has purposed creation in order to commune with it. This Godhead placed preeminence upon humanity, and thereby bestowed upon humanity the "imago Dei" (Image of God) in the creation account of Genesis, of which humanity still partakes though in limited (fallen) manner. Whereas a strict definition of the imago dei is not required for the purpose of this argument, let it here suffice to say that the imago dei is comprised of that set of attributes which humans alone (as opposed to animals) share in lesser degree with God and through which higher forms of recognition of and communication with God are made possible. From this understanding of the biblical account is made the following two conclusions: First, due to knowledge (via Scripture) of the imago dei Christian theists may agree upon the notion of a natural mystical capacity, a capacity wherein humanity is capable of "sensing" or communing with God. Second, due to knowledge (via Scripture) of the Fall (ie, the event wherein humanity is separated from God due to sin) theists may also agree with or indeed expect humanity's inability to infallibly recognize the Object of the imago dei if indeed the "Fall" involves a separation from God.

In addition to the imago dei, Scripture informs us of a so-called "general revelation" whereby humanity is informed of the presence of God. General revelation refers to that set of ideas or notions we correctly apply to God through our extrapolation and ponderance upon the phenomena of Nature. In essence general revelation refers to the experiential fact that Nature provides a medium through which the human mind naturally infers the presence of God. As the Psalmist says:

"The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world". (Psalm 19:1-3, NIV).

Please note that according to Scripture this revelation is not passive, as if waiting to be discovered by some deeply buried sense within human nature, but rather is described as active and pervasive, confronting every living soul regardless of time and location through a "pouring out" which penetrates all linguistic, cultural and political borders.

Thus it is without doubt that according to the biblical picture, the universally religious nature of humanity derives from the presences of the imago dei and general revelation. Biblical definitions clearly present these both as divinely constructed windows, one external, one internal, through which humanity is actively and continuously reminded (reminisced) of God.

Therefore any biblical theology of world religions must seize upon this utterly critical information regarding universal humanity's perceptual or conscientious ability to apprehend the presence of God.

the Imago Dei

Scripture clearly teaches that man is comprised of body and spirit/soul. [2] Wherein, then, lies the imago dei? Few would suggest the imago dei to imply bodily or physical shape or function since God is clearly portrayed in Scripture as Infinite Spirit (john 4:24) rather than corporeal. Thus the imago dei has been historically regarded as consisting of humanity's higher functions, namely, volition (will), consciousness, morality, etc. Such attributes indeed belong to the spirit/soul (or "mind").

If then the imago dei is a spiritual reality, how shall we then define or discern its limitations? There is no difficulty in defining the imago dei's limitations as pertains to the material world, for we can, or so it seems, measure one's volition, morality or consciousness through observation of an indivdual's behavior, choices or self-awareness. But Scripture has suggested that the primary purpose for the imago dei was to facilitate communication with God, and so how might the imago dei's non-physical interactions be measured or discerned? More simply put, we know through observation that the imago dei still operates within humanity as they navigate through the natural/physical world, but how well does the imago dei continue to function in its primary purpose, namely to help humanity navigate through the spiritual world and toward the Creator?

Those who would deny a continued spiritual capacity of the imago dei do so with the argument that the Fall of humanity renders the imago dei inoperable. However it is historically held that the imago dei is in fact quite visibly operational and accounts for those very valued attributes which distinguish humans from brute animal. Thus the suggestion that some spiritual capacity no longer belongs to the imago dei seems to raise quite difficult questions as to why this is so, and how the imago dei could be present in decisions and rationalizations regarding physical objects while it is absent in the same respect regarding spiritual objects. Thus this papers assumes, based on our observation of the continued functionality of the imago dei in humanity, that the imago dei continues to possess, to some degree, aspects of its original and primary function, namely, to communicate with God. (This does not imply that God cannot hide himself from or elude the window which the imago dei provides.)

From Scripture's account of God's creation of humanity and his subsequent dealings with us, it might briefly yet rightly be said that the primary desire or purpose of God for placing humanity within the created order was to engender a relationship with his creation. Whether we speak of God's gift of the imago dei, the various covenants and agreements He made with his people thereafter, or even more recently the Incarnation itself, all of God's activity revolves around the single theme of the provision of reconciliation whereby a restoration of the relationship between God and humanity is made possible.

This understanding of God's activity, both historic and universal, must also be seized upon by a biblical theology of world religions.

For through this we find that we (as humans) cannot fault others for simply seeking a higher reality, nor may we fault their arrival at what they believe to be an adequate or unparalleled explanatory system which is divergent from the Christian theistic framework. Without reference to the content of divergent systems (which will be addressed below) the proper evaluation at this point in the analysis must be this: Scripture has clearly portrayed God as himself primarily desiring a relationship with humanity. To facilitate this relationship He betsowed upon original humanity an internalized image of Himself through which, though debilitated through sin, continues to function to a degree within humanity. Thus man by nature is inclined to look toward God, or as Solomon states: "He has set eternity in the hearts of men" (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

General Revelation

The second factor mentioned which Scripture proposes regarding a universal religious nature of humanity is the presence of an active general revelation. Unfortunately, modern liberal theologies have tended to overestimate the abilities of general revelation, claiming that through knowledge made available by it individuals may in fact gain salvation. Of course such theologies are incoherent with the whole of Scripture which itself is by definition "special" revelation, or that through which is specially made available salvific knowledge.

Scripture presents a balanced perspective of general revelation, claiming that through such, humanity is able to make right judgments about the existence and nature of God. Scripture also claims that general revelation provides the basis upon which humanity will be judged. Romans 1:20 clearly indicates that rejection of the knowledge supplied via general revelation results in condemnation. In other words, there must be enough true knowledge about the existence and nature of God through general revelation and the imago dei that those who ignore such knowledge are susceptible to divine punishment for "disbelief".

Precisely what type of knowledge ought to be expected from general revelation?

The following list contains those aspects of God which Scripture claims all human beings know in varying degrees via general revelation:

  • God exists (Ps. 19: 1; Rom. 1: 19)
  • God is uncreated (Acts 17:24)
  • God is Creator (Acts 14:15)
  • God is Sustainer (Acts 14:16; 17:25
  • God is universal Lord (Acts 17:24)
  • God is self.sufficient (Acts 17:25)
  • God is transcendent (Acts 17:24)
  • God is immanent (Acts 17:26.27)
  • God is eternal (Ps. 93:2)
  • God is great (Ps. 8:3.4)
  • God is majestic (Ps. 29:4)
  • God is powerful (Ps. 29:4; Rom. 1:20)
  • God is wise (Ps. 104:24)
  • God is good (Acts 14:17)
  • God is righteous (Rom. 1:32)
  • God has a sovereign will (Acts 17:26)
  • God has standards of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15)
  • God should be worshipped (Acts 14:15; 17:23)
  • God will judge evil (Rom. 2:15.16)
  • Man should perform the good (Rom. 2:15)

To summarize: God's glory (Ps. 19:1), divine nature (Rom. 1:20), and moral demands (Rom. 2:14.15) are to some extent known through general revelation. (Demarest, 243).

The question I desire to raise in this paper is whether such visible attributes of God are limited to the product of deductive reasoning derived from external sources of information or whether they may also be intuited. Is God's Transcendence merely deduced from creation, as for example, an Uncaused Cause or a First Mover, or is it indeed known by man regardless of deductions? If divine attributes may be intuited, it must be concluded that these attributes are indeed realities which the intuitive aspect of man objectively perceives.

It would seem that if the attributes listed above, conveyed, according to scripture through general revelation and the imago dei, are the basis of universal accountability to God it would necessitate an intuitive knowledge (or a knowledge which all arrive at despite very diverse deductive processes). Although this point requires significant further study, allow me to continue with this reasoning. If general revelation allows for intuitive knowledge, to what depth of inuitive knowledge shall we limit it? If we say that the man driving home from work with business on his mind is capable of sudden (real) awareness of God's righteousness, may we not also say that the Indian ascetic striving for depths of intuitive knowledge is also capable of sudden awareness of God's righteousness? Not only would the latter be possible, but likely. If God is actively declaring his attributes to a humanity which possesses the spiritual capacity to hear God, shall we be surprised if men from all traditions and ages claim to have encountered the Absolute?

The Divine Nature and the Divine Person

Do all such encounters result in a conceptual grasp of divine personality? Do all encounter a moral being? The evidence clearly points to the fact that many, if not most, do not. Rather, it is clear that many traditions and mystics experience impersonal divinity as their highest expressions of reality. This discrepancy has served as a fundamental obstacle to reconciling the myriad mystical traditions.

It is the conviction of this author that knowledge of many of the attributes (listed above) to which Scripture holds humanity accountable do not necessitate knowledge of a divine personality. In other words, to "say", as general revelation does, that God is eternal, self-existent, uncreated, etc., does NOT immediately convey enough information whereby one may conclude that God is personal, rational, or loving. Much less do these attributes convey enough information to identify their existence as due to the Judeao-Christian God.

What does this mean? The point here is simply that Scripture declares that nature and the imago dei actively confront humanity, internally and externally, with divine attributes which are universally compelling to the degree of constituting universal culpability for belief in a Creator. However, many of the attributes which Scripture lists do not require the attribute of personality. Rather the entire accountability of humanity rests on the fact that we perceive their existence. It is the existence of a Creator which men cannot deny through knowledge communicated through general revelation, not the personality or holiness of God. Thus, it is here argued, the view of God which humanity possesses outside of special revelation (God's Word, Scripture, Jesus) is a view which may or may not entail divine personality.

On this points Demarest notes that the terms used in Romans 1:20 imply that only the divine attributes are revealed and not divine Personality. He writes:

"Insofar as "theiotes" (of Rom. 1:20) focuses on the divine attributes or perfections, it must be differentiated from "theotes" (Latin. deitas, Col. 2:9) which specifies the divine personality... The point that needs to be reinforced is that it is not the essence of God that is said to be known, but only His divine qualities or perfections." (239)

Why make so much of the distinction between sensing the personality of God and not sensing it? The key is this. If Scripture allows for a worldview that accounts for the vast majority of mystical experiences, then it has again proved itself to be a viable foundation for a comprehensive worldview. What does Scripture say of the Zen enlightenment whereby the dualities of physical reality are said to disappear in the light of a universal non-personal One? What does Scripture say of the Vedanta Hindu mystic who claims that the highest divine attributes are eternality, morality and omnipresence (and thereby they subordinate personality)? What does Scripture say of the Native American mystic who sensed the presence of a Great Spirit who oversees all movements of life and weather?

It is the argument of this paper that Scripture not only makes room for these various views, but anticipates them through its ancient doctrines of the imago dei and general revelation.

For those familiar with the Bible, consider this very meaningful thought experiment. What notion of God might you have arrived at without knowledge (or record) of:

  • The Genesis creation narrative
  • God's Word to Moses at Mount Sinai
  • God's inspiration of David the Poet
  • God's Voice through the prophets
  • God's presence through His son Jesus Christ
  • God's highest teaching through Jesus
  • God's attempted reconciliation through the death of Jesus
  • The apostlic witness to the meaning of Jesus' death
  • The witness of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer
  • The Bible as a record of our spiritual heritage

Whereas ALL of these truths belong solely to special revelation, the notion or implication of none of these may be justly expected of any human other than those who have been sincerely familiarized with the Judaeo-Christian heritage. (This is precisely what is meant by the "blessing" clause in the Abrahamic covenant! -- see Genesis 12). Thus the question stands: What notion of God might you have arrived at without these? In answer to the question, Scripture has provided the list of divine attributes which are available to you. The next question simply is, based on that list alone, what notion of God do you arrive at?

Please note that to answer this puzzle you will need to borrow a word, vocabulary, and concept for this "God" (since It has neither named itself nor suggested that human language is a divine gift, except via special revelation). You would, of course, adopt the highest concepts of your culture and try to amend them in some way to describe this Highest Reality. And here great diversity will arise. Are you the descendants of slaves? Would not your highest concepts be justice and righteousness, a moral judge to overthrow the high and mighty? Are you the descendants of the militant victors? Would not your highest concepts involve cultural and philosophical "value" such that human advances could be distinguished from less advanced societies? Are you the descendants of an ancient and stable agrarian society? Would not your highest concepts be the beauty, magnificence, and life-giving power of wind, rain and sky? Are you the descendants of an historic inability of social, political, and organized religious "solutions"? Would not your highest concepts of reality be those which elude institutionalized or conventional wisdom?

And of course the scenario go on and on.

conclusion

It is the position of this paper that Scripture anticipates universal "mystical" experiences via intuition (and deduction) of divine attributes or perfections. Diversity of interpretation, ranging from personal Being to impersonal Emptiness, I suggest, may scripturally be anticipated due to the very basic and necessary distinction between divine attributes and divine personality, a distinction which is evidenced in the language of Scripture itself. Thus God's personal nature may in fact not be intuitable and thus could not be an aspect of universal culpability (nor much less contemporary moral judgment).

The parting question of this paper is this: If, as has been argued here, divine personality is not universally intuitable through general revelation and the imago dei, is the divine personality to any degree intuitable or do the truly monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) derive solely from their (very apparent) foundation upon special revelation?

endnotes

[1] Christianity can allow for multiple lesser objects which may be mistaken for the Highest Object.

[2] For the purposes of brevity of argument, this paper refers to soul/spirit as a single entity. A tripartite perspective will not impact this argument but will require definitions of soul and spirit whereby faculties and attributes might be distinguished.

bibliography

Corduan, Winfried. (1991). Mysticism: An evangelical option?. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).

Demarest, Bruce A. (1982). General Revelation. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan)

Katz, Steven T. (1978). "Language, epistemology, and mysticism". Chap. in: Katz, Steven T. ed. (1978). Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press): 22.74.

Huxley, Aldous. (1962). The Perennial Philosophy. (Cleveland: World)

Stace, W.T. (1960). Mysticism and Philosophy. (New York: St. Martin's Press)

Vivekenanda. (1993). Living at the Source. (Boston: Shambhala).

Zaehner, R.C. (1957). Mysticism: Sacred and Profane. (London: Oxford Univ. Press)

Emerging Church Economics

There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined

Mordecai Kaplan: Rethinking Judaism for the New World

Sed porta eros cursus nisi. Suspendisse a odio in mi interdum faucibus. Nulla eleifend turpis at massa. Praesent dictum, leo sagittis rutrum fermentum, massa metus scelerisque justo, sed dignissim velit tellus ut odio. Quisque mollis aliquam lectus. Vestibulum tempus tellus a augue. Suspendisse ipsum.