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Book Review: Mystic Union

Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism, Nelson Pike (Cornell University Press, 1992)

I added this book to my summer reading liston a recommendation from Prof. Yandell in my Religious Epistemology class last year. Yandell mentioned that it was a study of various mystical experiences, used especially as a sourcebook for philosophers of religion in their analysis of religious experiences. So a little over a month ago I decided to buy this book, thereby breaking my own self-imposed rule for not buying any new books for my summer reading list. I was convinced that this book would be a useful step forward in pursuing answers to my own questions, many of which revolve around how to understand other religions from a Christian perspective. I felt it was important to have some grasp on what religious experiences people around the world actually have.

Unfortunately, given my expectations, the book was a disappointment. Pike does not provide an account of mystic experiences within world religious traditions, but rather restricts his study to Christian mystical experiences. Specifically his main subjects are Roman Catholic (and at least one Eastern Orthodox) mystics like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and Bernard of Clairvaux. This was, however, an interesting read since I was almost completely unfamiliar with this tradition. Mike Bickle of Kansas City’s International House of Prayer has drawn extensively from Bernard and others, and I encountered St. Teresa in a undergrad history course on the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation. But other than that, I was almost entirely unfamiliar with these guys.

The first thing I noticed about the book was its overwhelming odor. I purchased it from a used bookstore, a place that obviously burned a lot of incense – A LOT of incense. Diana thinks it smells like smoker’s smoke, but I distinctly smell some flavor of incense, though I can’t tell which. That, I suppose, is one of the dangers of buying used.

Pike’s purpose is to defend the proposition that theistic mystical experiences are phenomenologically different from non-theistic mystical experiences, which is to say that they are descriptively different regardless of whether you believe they are ‘real’ or not.  Pike classifies non-theistic experiences as either ‘natural,’ like the kind reported by Aldous Huxley after tripping on mescaline, or as ‘monistic,’ where mystics typically feel they have become ‘one with the universe’, especially in Eastern religions. Ninian Smart and Walter Stace had argued that Christian mystics report becoming ‘one with God’ and therefore are essentially similar to the monistic mystics. The only difference, they argued, is that Christians interpret their experiences in light of their theology, concluding that they must have encountered God. Pike counters that Smart’s and Stace’s analyses are reductionistic and do violence to the reports of Christian mystics themselves. Thus Pike defends the distinction between theistic and monistic religious experiences.

I suspect that Pike’s argument, published in 1992, was decisive within the philosophy of religion community. In my religious epistemology class, the distinction was simply observed and assumed. (At least I think it was. The whole class was somewhat over my head — as long as I kept jumping I could basically keep up, but the second I went into autopilot I would lose track of all that was going on.) Pike himself draws no epistemological conclusions about Christian mystical experiences. That is to say, he refuses to speculate about whether the mystics actually encountered God. My professor’s book, The Epistemology of Religious Experience (Keith Yandell) seems to pick up where Pike’s book leaves off, arguing that if some people have experiences in which they seem to encounter God, then those experiences count as evidence toward the existence of God.

Reading Pike’s book made me interested in reading some of these mystics. As a good charismatic, it also makes me want to search out similar experiences from Charismatics to find out how they compare. I also want to read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, which plays an important role in contributing examples for debate.

Pike mentions that the other main area of writing on Christian mystical experiences came from the theologians, who wrestled for some time with what to do with these experiences. The main era when this was an issue was during scholasticism, which, if I remember right, was in vogue from 1000 or 1100 until about 1300. The main scholastic theologian was Thomas Aquinas, writing smack dab in the middle of the 1200s. I am familiar with scholastic theology almost entirely from secondary sources, none of which ever mentioned an emphasis on mystical experiences. So I really want to go back now and read what Aquinas and others had to say about Christian mysticism.

Finally, I am left wanting a better foundation in analytic philosophy. In an online lecture I recently watched, William Lane Craig suggested that anyone who wants to enter apologetics needs to become well versed in analytic philosophy, especially something called modal logic. I have to admit that I am clueless about modal logic, so any philosophical reading I do (at least in the Anglo-American tradition) is done intuitively. That intuition seems to be more-or-less on, since I got an A on my paper for Yandell’s class. But I had to put a lot more work in on it than most other papers, and did a lot of modeling my own argument on similar arguments we covered in class. Pike’s book itself is actually fairly accessible to someone without the philosophy background, but it stimulates me to want to learn more.

Pike’s book provides an excellent survey of the Christian mystical tradition. He digs deeper than most other philosophers are willing to go, but does so with clarity and precision. It is clearly a standard for understanding Christian mysticism.

Categories: Book Reviews, Mysticism
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  1. July 8, 2008 at 4:58 pm
  2. May 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm

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