Mysterious Tremors

People like me who have mystical experiences may be encountering some unknown Other. What can we learn about what that Other is?

Note: In what follows, “May 1959″ refers to the date of a mysterious experience of the author’s recounted in Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything.

According to the cognitive scientists, our brains are afflicted with a “Hyperactive Agency Detection Device,” predisposing us to imagine gods, faces in clouds, divine beings in rocks. This has become, in just the last decade or so, the killer argument against religion, as if we needed another one: that it is an odd relic of our evolutionary history as prey, this tendency to imagine “agents” where there are none. (Though I should mention that the ability to imagine other humans as conscious beings or “agents,” rather than as, say, androids, is never attributed to an oversensitive mental “device.” That ability is deemed healthy and normal.)

The author at 18, near the time of her first mystical experiences.
The author at 18, around the time of an early “mystical” experience.

What the cognitive biological account tends to downplay, or rush right past in its hurry to get to a thoroughly anthropocentric conclusion, is that there actually were lions in the night, bears in the forest, and snakes in the grass. Suppose that of all the mystical experiences reported over the centuries, some actually were encounters with another sort of being or beings. Wouldn’t it be wise to investigate? After all, these other beings appear to be, at least for the duration of the encounter, more powerful than a human and at least as awe-inspiring as lions. They can even leave people temporarily unhinged, as I was in the months after May 1959. Saint Teresa reported that her revelations were sometimes accompanied by “great pain” or “an agony carrying with it so great a joy” as to leave one “ground to pieces.” Her contemporary Saint John of the Cross likened the Other he encountered in his mystic transports, who was presumably the Christian deity, to a “savage beast.” In our own time, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick experienced a theophany — a “self-disclosure by the divine” — which left him feeling more like “a hit-and-run accident victim than a Buddha.” He disintegrated into what was diagnosed as mental illness, to the point of earning a bed in a locked psychiatric ward for several weeks. If only from a public health perspective, we need to know whether there is some sort of etiological agent at work here other than the vague pall of “mental illness.”

Here is a humble analogy — some would say too humble and hence completely out of place in any discussion that touches on the “divine.” Until a little under two hundred years ago, most human cultures blamed disease on supernatural forces like spirits, curses, or the wrath of God or gods. More sophisticated societies traced illness to imbalanced “humors” or impediments in the flow of qi. As late as the mid-1800s, enlightened Europeans were focusing in on invisible airborne “miasmas” as the source of diseases like cholera. If you had proposed in, say, 1800 that many of the most virulent diseases are in fact caused by tiny living creatures, similar to the “animalcules” detected by Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, your contemporaries would probably have judged you mad. It would be like suggesting that the love between people is mediated by a species of very small love bugs.

Ehrenreich_LivingwithaWildGodHC (1)We forget now, after the easy triumph of the germ theory of disease at the end of the nineteenth century, how improbable the theory must have originally seemed. Humans had thought themselves alone on the earth, except for the animals and any spirits or gods, but we are an insignificant minority on a planet thickly populated by the invisible living beings we call microbes, leading biologist Stephen Jay Gould to call this the “Planet of the Bacteria.” Some are benign or even judged to be “good,” like Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which gives us wine, beer, and leavened bread. Others, like the smallpox virus or Yersinia pestis, the agent of bubonic plague, are vicious predators and, some argue, worthy targets for eradication.

Most accounts of mystical experiences — at least of those I have read, which by no means amount to a representative sample — insist that the Other in the encounter appears to be “living” or alive, as in “living God.” But is it alive in any biological sense? Does it eat and metabolize? Does it reproduce — an option that monotheism would seem to foreclose? Every now and then a whiff of the biological breaks through the incense-ridden atmosphere of recorded mystical thought. Meister Eckhart, for example, the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century German monk who is often considered the greatest of the Christian mystics, proposed what could be interpreted as a shockingly zoomorphic God, one whose “nature . . . is to give birth,” over and over, eternally, in every human soul that will make room for him. In order to prepare a perfect setting for the divine birth — a sort of nest, or as Eckhart sometimes put it, a “manger” — a person must empty his or her soul of all ego and attachments and turn the resulting space over entirely to God.

Somehow human authority is never enough; we must have special effects.

The Other who appeared in Philip K. Dick’s theophany was even more overtly creaturelike. As related in his novel VALIS, in which the author figures as the main character, Dick fought his way back from inpatient status by working obsessively to understand and communicate his encounter with a deity of extraterrestrial origin that is “in no way like mortal creature” (his italics). This deity or deities — for there may be at least a half dozen of them in Dick’s idiosyncratic cosmogony — bear some resemblance to biological creatures: They have their own agendas, and what they seek, through their self-disclosures to humans, is, according to Dick, “interspecies symbiosis.”

Ideally, for further insights into the nature of this Other — its properties, its powers and possible intentions — we would turn here to a vast database of all recorded mystical, spiritual, and religious experiences, not just those of monks and writers but of anonymous adolescents, street-corner prophets, indigenous shamans, peyote-eaters, and so forth. But no such database exists, nor is there any reason to think that an exhaustive one is possible. How could we know what proportion of mystical experiences ever get recorded in one form or another? Maybe the recorded ones are only a small and unrepresentative minority of the total. And how could we correct for the possibility that many recorded experiences have been censored or at least recorded in a form designed not to offend any of the prevailing deities or their human representatives? The intended audience for Saint Teresa’s autobiography, for example, was the Inquisitors who were investigating her for signs of heresy, so she may have redacted any visions or insights that could possibly be interpreted as diabolical in origin. The twentieth-century Jesuit mystic and scientist Teilhard de Chardin struggled mightily to imbue his insights with a “Christic sense” lest they be seen as “godless pantheism” — and still his superiors often forbade him to publish.

But we do know enough to say that this Other who appears in mystical experiences is not benevolent, or at least not consistently so. Here I am not talking about the monotheistic God, or whatever entity can be blamed for natural disasters and birth defects — just about that Other whose existence could be inferred from reported mystical experiences or, for that matter, from close attention to natural phenomena like tropical weather. The early twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Otto surveyed the works of (mostly Christian) mystics for clues as to the nature of the mysterium tremendum, as he termed it, a.k.a. the “Wholly Other,” and concluded that it was “beyond all question something quite other than the ‘good.’” It was more like a “consuming fire,” he said, perhaps from personal experience, and “must be gravely disturbing to those persons who will recognize nothing in the divine nature but goodness, gentleness, love, and a sort of confidential intimacy.” As Eckhart, one of Otto’s many sources, had asserted centuries earlier, referring to the Other as “God,” the religious seeker must set aside “any idea about God as being good, wise, [or] compassionate.”

Mysticism often reveals a wild, amoral Other, while religion insists on conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being.

This of course poses a nearly insoluble problem: Mysticism often reveals a wild, amoral Other, while religion insists on conventional codes of ethics enforced by an ethical supernatural being. The obvious solution would be to admit that ethical systems are a human invention and that the Other is something else entirely. After all, human conceptions of morality derive from the intensely social nature of the human species: Our young require years of caretaking and we have, over the course of evolution, depended on one another’s cooperation for mutual defense. Thus we have lived, for most of our existence as a species, in highly interdependent bands that had good reasons to emphasize the values of loyalty and heroism, even altruism and compassion. But why should a being whose purview supposedly includes the entire universe share the tribal values of a particular group of terrestrial primates? The God of religion, the enforcer of ethics, is one thing, the “Wholly Other” revealed in mystical experiences quite another.

Otto, good Protestant that he was, refused to make this distinction. Religions, especially of the highest, so-called world religion rank, seem to require their founding revelations — annunciations, Damascene moments, visits from Allah in a cave — to convince us of their nonhuman, “divine” origin. Presumably the Hebrews would not have accepted the Ten Commandments if they came in the form of a memo. The commandments had to be delivered by a bearded prophet whose mystic credibility had been conferred by the burning bush and who came down from the mountain accompanied by a terrifying display of thunder and lightning. Somehow human authority is never enough; we must have special effects. Otto, too, wanted his Christian ethics to be grounded in the “numinous” as glimpsed by the mystics, so he perpetuated the confusion. Even some of our more scientifically grounded philosophical thinkers today, like the Canadian philosopher John Leslie, struggle mightily to detect some ethical principle infusing the natural world.

If the Other as perceived by mystics is not benevolent, neither is it necessarily malevolent; in fact both descriptions are flagrantly anthropocentric. Why should it be “for” us or “against” us any more than the God of monotheism should favor the antelope over the lion?


Image by Robert S. Donovan.

Barbara Ehrenreich
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  • Doug Wilkening

    How do you know that I am a real person commenting here, and not an internet bot? A serious question, since there are real people who comment on forums, and there are bots that also do. You’ve seen the bots’ work from time to time if you cruise the net a lot. The bots generally post spam of some kind, but how do you know I’m not a more sophisticated one, one that answers questions, etc. Maybe I’m an MIT student’s research project.

    Do the thought experiment. How would you tell the difference, on the internet, between a real person and a moderately sophisticated bot? Between a real person and a very sophisticated bot? Think about that question, and you’ll learn quite a bit about how to tell if your spiritual encounters are real or Memorex.