Experience: Religious, Mystical, Human?

Tags: Mysticism, prayer, Religious experience, Spirituality, Theism

The eminent theologian Karl Rahner has said that the Christian of the future will be either a mystic (which means, someone who has experienced something), or he/she won’t be a Christian at all. Rahner´s prophecy is accurate, not only concerning Christians but also for anyone who experiences transcendence in these times. In the same way that modernity does not accept anything that is unverified by rationality, the post-modernity in which we live considers experience a privileged way of knowledge . Despite the risk of disillusionment that is inherent in experiences remaining superficial or induced by artificial means, it seems perfectly clear today that people are no longer accepting ideologies, theories or doctrines that are not rooted in experience.

In the new religious consciousness present in our post-modern age, experience is at the center, and this is a principal, perhaps even a fundamental, issue for today’s theology to address. The sensibility of men and women of our times searches for a contact with mystery through direct experience; it is thirsting to touch Ultimate Reality and to be in contact with it, even if not through the most traditional and institutionalized means. In the act of seeking and finding, our contemporaries show a tendency to turn inward, toward the inner self. What we call God or Ultimate Reality is not felt as something external and objective, but, on the contrary, as something that can only be found in inner experience. When this happens, the “external” elements that surround the experience are necessarily put in a secondary and relative position.

Institutions, dogmatic formulas, ritual systems won’t comprehend their significance at its profoundest depth unless they are experienced in the inwardness of the self. This new consciousness is more than just one perspective among others; instead, it is actually revealing itself as a new paradigm. Furthermore, it demands from Western Christianity a wider vision than the ecclesiastical vision, specifically, a vision of the de-institutionalization of Christianity.

The traditional ecclesiastical structure is currently undergoing a serious crisis. Even so, the thirst for God, for transcendence, for the supernatural, for spirituality is very much alive, expressing itself in varied and concrete ways. This search for God and spiritual experience can lead some of our contemporaries to reconnect with true life, a life full of joy and meaning, even if this must happen through alternative means.

Still, it is important to make some distinctions between terms when we speak of experience, and specifically of religious experience. We live in a culture of sensations, which affects our inner space. The sensations offered to us are usually so intense, refined and persistent that they cannot enter us without being consciously apprehended, reflected upon, digested and assumed. This implies a risk: the risk of living permanently subject to the flux of sensations that reach our more superficial senses, skin and sensitivity.

This type of sensate experience brings with it the extreme difficulty of looking reality straight in the eye and taking on the challenges that it poses, which are tough and very often frustrating. It also can generate within us a vicious and compulsive behavior, stimulating reactions and manipulating our capacity for attention. Continual superficial and immediately gratifying sensations lead us to lose limits and engender a dangerous volatility in relationships and decision making.

As it has been said many times by Zygmunt Bauman, who is justly called the prophet of post-modernity, our lives are becoming “liquid,” flowing non-stop in the cascade of sensations that invade it and stun it. This is true even about the very experiences of transcendence that are often called “mystical.” It isn’t true, however, that all experience identified as “religious” can be called a mystic experience. The supernatural elements existing in all men and women render them capable of an experience of the sacred, understood in the terms of Rudolf Otto’s famous text, The Idea of theHoly, as terrifying     (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans), a source of both wonderment and fear. It is an experience in which the human being feels taken over by a mystery that is not reducible, a category that is original in all its manifestations.

A mystical experience, or an experience of God, is not only an existential experience of the sacred, but also an experience of meaning. It is through such experience that we understand the radical meaning that gives structure to human life. If we accept that definition, and if we also accept the definition of the human being as a relational being who can only be understood from the perspective of the relational openess, the meaning of human life can only be given and experienced through connection with others. In other words, human beings can only feel as such―human—through the revelation of an Other that invites us to the adventure of mutual knowing and of love. In terms of the religious experience, this can be an experience of “fusion,” or feeling dissolved in the Absolute. The mystical experience, according to what we have here described, is always an experience of relation, of an exchange with Otherness, with the difference of the Other.

This relational status, which is valid for truly human experience, is especially so when we speak of mysticism. In the mystical event, which happens between a human and the divine, it is not just the ego that is in action, but also the Other, who according to his own Otherness, moves the ego to an unprecedented journey, with no previously planned or thought-out ways. Without a pre-planned route, the journey begins and continues without any security other than the progressive discovery of someone that is not “I,” but that is “Other,” a subject whose difference overwhelms me as an epiphany.

When we speak of mysticism, this relation with the Other’s difference takes on various perspectives. We are inserted into the process and the movement of a companion of absolute dimensions, with whom the human being cannot even dream of establishing a symmetrical relationship, or be moved by immediate needs. God is not an object of necessity, but of desire. God is the totally Other whose mysterious profile is found more deeply etched in the extreme situations of human existence and who radically transforms the life of the one involved in that experience.

María Clara Bingemer
Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro

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