RE1e The Varieties of Religious Experience: Mysticism

The third type of religious experience you need to understand is mysticism.

The word ‘mystic’ or ‘mystical’ is often used when referring to astrologists, fortune tellers and tarot card readers, but in our study, these are entirely separate.

When we try to define mystical experience, we mean something like ‘union with the divine’, an experience is which there is smoking of oneness with God or the divine.

Walter Stace – definition of mysticism

Stace wrote that:

‘the central characteristic [of mystical experience] is that they involve the apprehension of an ultimate non-sensuous unity in all things, a oneness or a One to which the senses nor reason can penetrate.’

Here we see a key difference to other forms of religious experience: the non-sensuous, that is, unlike a vision for example, where what is seen can be described using sensory language such as sight and sound, in mystical experience, no such description is possible.  That is not to say that these experiences cannot be understood, just that they go beyond what can be describes using the senses.

The second key feature of mystical experience is this unity or oneness.  This is understood differently depending on the religious tradition in which the experience takes place.

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) referred to mystical union as ‘a spiritual marriage‘.  As a Christian, she was referring to the Christian understanding of marriage which says that in marriage, two persons become one flesh, two are united as one.  So in a ‘spiritual marriage’, the mystic, the subject of the experience becomes one with God.

William James – features of mystical experience

James’ studies as a psychologist led him tot he died that there were four features of mysticism.  For an experience to be considered mystical it should have all four of these these marks:

  1. passivity – in a mystical experience, the mystic is passive rather than active.  The mystic is taken over by the superior power and is in a state of acceptance and openness to the experience.
  2. ineffability – as we have already seen, mystical experiences go beyond what the senses can describe.  Ineffable experiences are those that cannot be properly or adequately described; they defy expression.  It is here that the mystic often resorts to analogy and metaphor to try and communicate their experiences, though is is always the case with such language, they are limited in how much they can tell us.
  3. noetic quality – mystical states are states of knowledge to those who experience them.  The mystic will gain access to some depth of truth that cannot be reached through thought or intellectual activity.  The mystic is left with a sense of certainty and reality in respect of this truth.
  4. transiency – mystical experiences are transient or temporary.  James claims that most last between 30 minutes and 2 hours.
Walter Stace and Robert Zaehner – different types of mysticism

Walter Stace distinguishes between extrovertive and introvertive mysticism.

An extrovertive experience (outward looking) is one in which the plurality of objects in the world, the many objects, are transfigured or transformed into a single living entity.

An introvertive (inward looking) experience is one in which the mystic loses their identity and merges with the divine; they cease to be an individual and become part of the greater unity.  The Hindu scripture the Chandoyga Upanishad describes this as:

‘as rivers flow to their rest in the ocean and there leave behind them name and form, so the knower, liberated from name and form, reaches that Divine person beyond the beyond.’

Zaehner distinguishes between three types of mysticism.

  • nature – a oneness with nature, the kind experienced by the English poet William Wordsworth when he wrote:

“I have felt a presence . . . whose dwelling is in the light of setting suns . . . the ocean . . . the air . . . the sky and in the mind of man.”

  • monistic – sometimes called Eastern mysticism as it is found in the Eastern religions such as Hinduism, where the experience is of the soul being identified with Brahman.
  • theistic – Western mysticism, as seen in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Here the mystic is in union with the creator God.

However, many scholars, such as Ninian Smart argue that there are no differences in these experiences, but because they are ineffable, we interpret and explain them within our own traditions.


In summary, mysticism is about union with the divine.

The key characteristics are passivity, ineffability, noetic quality and transiency.

Types of mysticism can include extrovertive or introvertive, or perhaps nature, monistic or theistic.

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