Mystical experiences the same everywhere? Maybe not

Among the many debates raging among those who study religion today, perhaps none is so pervasive – and emotionally charged – as the question of whether there is something about religious phenomena that is fundamentally the same across cultures. Some scholars, such as religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith, argue that there is no fundamental “essence” to religion and that the behaviors we describe as religious are actually a wide variety of heterogeneous, hodgepodge, culturally constructed phenomena, some of which are related to each other and others of which aren’t. Others, following novelist and popular writer Aldous Huxley, have argued that there is a “perennial philosophy” that guides all human cultures and which can be accessed through transformative mystical experiences. However, while mystical experiences do appear to occur in most societies, new research suggests that even these most fundamental aspects of what we consider religion can differ greatly across cultures, raising questions about the validity of the perennialist ideals.

Writing recently in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Francis-Vincent Anthony, Chris A.M. Hermans, and Carl Sterkens reported that in a survey of 1,920 college students in India, Muslims and Christians experienced more “vertical mysticism,” or the perception of unity with a higher or elevated level of reality, than Hindus. In fact, Hindu students responded relatively ambivalently to survey questions that measured this “vertical” type of mystical experience. The authors suggest that such discrepancy in mystical experiences – which are often considered by proponents of perennial philosophies to be the same everywhere – can be explained by differing theological emphases in Semitic religions and their Hindu counterparts.

God, in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, is usually considered to exist at a “higher” or transcendent level from everyday reality. That isn’t to say that some Christian or Muslim thinkers haven’t described God in more immanent terms; it’s just that most don’t. This means that instead of existing around us, God in the Judeo-Christian tradition typically exists above us. In contrast to this transcendent image of God, much of Hindu philosophy, particularly the influential Advaita Vendanta school, has stressed the fundamental identity of the individual soul, atman, with the divine reality, or brahman. Divine reality in Hinduism is all-pervasive, omnipresent, and ultimately attainable in a manner the study’s authors describe as “horizontal:” that is, while Christians and Muslims reach God by rising upwards into sacred levels of existence, Hindus expand laterally into greater reaches of the very same cosmos we inhabit right now. This distinction, the authors say, explains the differing characters of mystical experience among Christian, Muslim, and Hindu students.

Sure, there are potential problems with the author’s interpretation. For example, perhaps the mystical experiences reported by students are actually the same when they occur, but students’ descriptions of them are inseparable from their cultural conditioning and so come across as radically different to researchers’ ears. Or there may be other characteristics of mystical experience besides the vertical-horizontal dichotomy that remain stable across cultural boundaries. One could also argue that the authors' understanding of Christian and Hindu philosophy is superficial at best. But the ramifications of this research, if it’s corroborated by further studies, are still fairly profound. If mystical experiences, long considered to be the root of all religions and the common link between them, are actually informed and altered by the theologies of various traditions, then what does that say about the nature of religious experience? In experiencing mystical insights, are people actually gaining access to an aspect of reality normally hidden from our view, or are they living out cultural conditioning under heightened emotional and cognitive conditions? In an age of books such as Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One, there is no escaping the challenging implications of research into mystical phenomena, for such research strikes at the heart of what we think about when we think about religion.

Click here to access the Blackwell Publishing web page for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.