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David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


How Seriously Should We Take Mysticism?

The Heretical Imperative vs. A Sociable God

David Lane

If religion is truly an experiential domain, then utilize methodologies that explore that domain directly.

According to Peter L. Berger in his 1979 book, The Heretical Imperative, modern man has three fundamental options in relation to religion: the deductive option, reaffirming a particular religious tradition in spite of counter claims/arguments against it (e.g., Islamic fundamentalism); the reductive option, modernizing a religious tradition in terms which make it sensible or understandable in today's predominant modes of thought (e.g., Rudolph Bultmann and the demythologization of the New Testament); or the inductive option, turning from external forms of authority to individual experience (e.g., William James and The Varieties of Religious Experience).

Peter L. Berger
Peter L. Berger

Although all three options can be exercised, Berger clearly favors and argues for the merits of the inductive option, since it allows for individuals to choose orientations based upon their own religious encounters. Indeed, The Heretical Imperative can be seen as Berger's passionate attempt to save the transcendent elements of religion from the ravages of modern consciousness. As Dennis P. McCann notes: Undoubtedly, the problem of relativism stands at the heart of The Heretical Imperative. Berger welcomes the pluralism of perspectives resulting from secularization and "relativizes the relativizers" who would set limits to this pluralism. Since all thought, including modernity itself, is shaped by plausibility structures, no thought has a cognitive privilege with reference to any other thought. Therefore modernity cannot be used to intimidate religious believers into abandoning their faith.

Yet, by emphasizing the superiority of the inductive possibility over the other two options, Berger is unwittingly putting forth his own skewed vision of the religious enterprise. In fact, Berger's stress on individual experience is reflective of modern consciousness, which turns religion more and more into a private act. Thus, Berger cannot escape from resorting to his own special kind of reductionism: viable religion is essentially individualistic and experiential.

Now there is no problem in posing such an argument, but to call this position "inductive" (denoting a type of "value-free" openness) betrays the fact that it is derived from an already held religious purview which heavily tends toward the mystical (Gnostic Christianity, Advaita Vedanta, Esoteric Buddhism) and not the revelatory (Biblical Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Shi'ite Islam). Hence, Berger's inductive methodology calls into question the exclusive claims of any one religious tradition. As such, only certain forms of religious endeavor can remain intact in the modern age; these forms, according to Berger, are almost always mystical in origin and point to knowledge which is not mythic or rational in basis, but trans-empirical or other-worldly.

However, does the "inductive" option really do justice to the various expressions of religions? Michael L. Morgan in his article "Judaism and The Heretical Imperative" argues that it does not. “The differences between Berger [e.g., "the inductive option"] and Judaism, then, are not superficial. It is not merely that The Heretical Imperative is not the Jewish imperative. Nor is it merely that the Jewish historical situation is a post-modern situation. It is more than that. For Judaism no phenomenological sociology can do justice to an experience that is secular and religious, human and divine all at once. . . Lurking in the background here is a distinction between fact and value, 'is' and 'ought' that is troubling, both in the application and in the breach. Jewish thought sees the Jewish experience differently.”

By arguing against the deductive and reductive options, Berger sets up a limited agenda of what truly constitutes genuine religiosity. In doing so, Berger's inductive "purity" becomes seriously tainted. Naturally, one cannot help wondering if Bergerian induction is actually more akin to mystical deduction, or, if Berger is "really a secular reductionist in disguise."

Perhaps the more important issue raised by Berger's typology, though, is the relationship between experience and its interpretation. That is, do certain kinds of religious experience lend themselves to particular modes of interpretation? Or, are religious encounters flavored by the cultural context in which they arise? But Berger falls short in trying to answer these questions by not making the "religious virtuosi" (Weber's term for those who have direct perceptions of trans-personal realities) a fundamental component of his inductive methodology. Instead Berger bases his approach on persons who have "had, at best, fugitive and imitational experiences in this area, and [whose] religious beliefs are grounded in a socially mediated tradition."

By not taking into full consideration the insights of the "religious virtuosi" Berger limits his experiential option to the verbal arena and thereby seriously damages the ultimate truth-values that his inductive approach can offer. Moreover, Berger does not provide us with any persuasive reasons why transcendental religious encounters are not merely projections or peculiar by-products of socially disenfranchised individuals. He assumes in a contradictory move of deduction that we accept such claims on faith. Comments McCann: “My point is simply that either Berger is kidding himself when he says you do not have to be a religious virtuoso to take the inductive option in theology, or be unaware of the cognitive dissonance created by trying to synthesize the methodological skepticism built into his sociology of knowledge with the methodological naiveté prescribed in his phenomenology of religious experience. In either case, any theology based on this sort of induction will be capable of generating only the softest of truth claims.”

Berger's mistake is that he leaves out one of the most important elements in the mystical encounter: the overwhelming sense of certainty ("mysterium tremendum"/"ganz andere"). It is this self-authenticating power of a religious reality which gives mysticism support for its claims of veridicality. To fully appreciate this sense, however, it is necessary that one be a religious virtuoso, or, at least, has access (momentary or otherwise) to the transcendent. If such a requirement is not made then Berger's option is not truly nductive (or experiential in nature), predisposed for acceptance of rejection, but is merely a speculative way in which to deal with transmundane realities. In other words, given Berger's limited definition of the inductive approach, no one can actually determine the truth-value of religious claims. Rather, all religious claims have equal value in the social sphere, provided that they point to something beyond this world. Naturally, this phenomenological bracketing may be useful for gathering information but it does nothing for critically appraising the relative merits of any one religious vision. And, yet, Berger subtly holds that his inductive methodology is somehow better than the deductive and reductive possibilities. But, how can this be the case when Berger's own approach is "shaped by culturally relative plausibility structures."

The sociological knife of relativism cuts both ways. As Van A. Harvey so aptly points out: “One is led to the conclusion that Berger's own attempts at theology are a reflection of this crisis rather than a cure for it because his own theology itself has no norms or criteria that govern his statements. It simply is a reflection of his own personal sensibility. Apart from the fact that his interferences from certain alleged human propensities are philosophically porous to the extreme--how can one move from a sense of outrage at injustice to the affirmation that there must be damnation while at the same time relying on cultural relativism? The issue here, it seems important to say, is not Berger's appeal to faith in order to ground his assertions; it is, rather, that there are no norms or criteria that justify one type of faith rather than another. Berger is critical of Protestant liberalism's cognitive surrender to modernity but he is himself committed to some limited accommodation to liberalism. But what is the principle that determines the limits of accommodation? On what grounds, for example, does he reject the notion of a decisive revelation in Christ but retain the notion of the "Biblical god," especially since Christian theologians have traditionally used the appeal to Christ to ground basic affirmations about God? Thus Berger seems vulnerable to the same shifting cultural winds (mood theology) of which he was so critical when it was practiced by the Secular Theologians. Everything hinges on his own personal sensibilities. . .”

A good illustration of the limits of Berger's inductive option can be seen in his section on "Religion: Experience, Tradition, Reflection" in The Heretical Imperative, where he makes the distinction between other religious virtuosi and "everyone else." For the religious virtuosi mystical experiences are "as immediately self-authenticating as the experience of a toothache". Therefore, most of their writings are not necessarily concerned with the reality of the Divine encounter, except when they deal directly with skeptics (e.g., St. Teresa of Avila and her struggles with her confessors—see The Interior Castle). However, instead of making religious virtuosity the raison d'etre of his inductive methodology, Berger lessens the mystical quest for experiential certainty and opts for an approach which is at best based on faith and at worst highly speculative.

Berger even suggests that non-mystics have a certain advantage over the religious virtuosi since "they can with some detachment look for evidence in the accounts of those who claim to have had such experience. In other words, they have the advantage of the dentist over his patient in any effort to undertake a comprehensive investigation of the phenomenon toothache'."

What Berger fails to consider, though, is that there is no "evidence" whatsoever in verbal/written accounts of trans-personal states of consciousness, but only suggestive descriptions. Moreover, any dentist (to stay with Berger's analogy) who does not have an experiential "feel" for a toothache runs the high risk of causing pain to his patients. It is simply not true that non-mystics have an advantage over the religious virtuosi in undertaking a comprehensive study of the transcendent. Berger might as well say that non-mathematicians have an advantage over mathematical geniuses when it comes to studying mathematics. By artificially separating the religious virtuosi from his inductive option, Berger castrates any chance for a truly comprehensive (experiential or otherwise) understanding of the transcendent in individual and social life. Criticizes McCann: “If the privatizing trend is built into Berger's version of the inductive option, then all the more reason there is for those who are disturbed by this trend to seek some sort of resolution of the dilemma posed by his view of religious experience. In either case, the intention will be to overcome the relativism that Berger seems left with by building a bridge between the religious virtuosi and the rest of us.”

Berger's most provocative chapter in The Heretical Imperative is "Between Jerusalem and Benares: The Coming Contestation of Religions," wherein he posits two major forms of Divine encounter: confrontation with the divine (epitomized in the West with the monotheistic tradition, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); and the interiority of the divine (exemplified in the East with such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and in some sects of Sikhism). Usually these two forms of divine encounter are viewed as antagonistic to each other. The confrontational religions (where God is usually seen as ontological "other") downplay the role of mysticism. Even a sophisticated Protestant theologian of the 20th century like Karl Barth was not averse to rejecting "every form of mysticism as unbelief. "

On the other hand, religions which stress interiority (particularly the Yoga systems of Hinduism) have a tendency—albeit a more polite tendency than confrontational religions—to see monotheistic traditions "at worst expressing a state of spiritual benightedness, at best being useful states toward a higher form of experience in which they are destined to be dissolved." Berger, however, is confident that this present situation of contestation between the two forms of religion can be moved into a more fruitful dialogue if the inductive approach is utilized. The problem between the two camps is primarily one of interpretation. Elucidates Berger: “From the standpoint of Jerusalem, the problem is formulated as follows: If God revealed himself in the Torah (or, of course, in Jesus Christ, or in the Koran), how could he also be found within the interiority of mystical consciousness? From the standpoint of Benares, the inverse formulation pertains: If the divine is to be experienced as the true ground of every man's consciousness, what is the status of particular historical revelations.”

In order to rectify the apparently insoluble impasse between religions of confrontation and interiority, Berger suggests that each side must a priori give up their exclusive claims on Divine knowledge; that is, each side must concede that all human religious experiences deserve serious study and that it is possible for other religions to have genuine Divine encounters.

Following this course of action, the real question becomes: "How could it be possible that both types of religious experience are true?" Berger goes on to point out, though, that this very question has already been posed by several serious theologians and thinkers from both camps. The result? Not surprisingly, theologians from the confrontational school uphold the superiority, no matter how subtle, of theism (witness the efforts of the Roman Catholic thinker, R.C. Zaehner); whereas the mystical adherents stress the superiority of advaita (non-dualism) and monism (see the arguments of Ninian Smart).

Yet, does Berger's inductive option really resolve the contestation (metaphorically framed by him) between Jerusalem and Benares? The answer is that it does not, indeed cannot, because Berger limits his inductive methodology to the speculative realm. True, Bergerian induction does generate discussion and dialogue, which is undoubtedly fruitful, but by its own acknowledged limitations cannot provide any adjudicatory function relative to the truth-values of any one religious vision, experience, or claim. Berger's inductive option is quite simply a method of phenomenology, wherein the sociologist rackets any causal questions in order to understand the described experience "as is."

Naturally, there is much in favor for a phenomenology of religious experiences, but it should be pointed out that Berger's inductive approach is not truly concerned with core experiences as such (since, as he states, the religious virtuosi are left out in his approach), but with the "rest of us" who have "at best, fugitive, and imitational experiences" of the mystical dimension. Put bluntly, Berger does not go far enough in his methodology. Nor does he take the religious enterprise seriously enough. Indeed, if there really are transcendental realities beyond this world and they are the heritage of all mankind, why not develop a meta-empirical approach? In other words, why not move religion out of the realm of "fugitive" experiences to "actual" experience?

If natural science deserves and demands the same, why should we expect less from religion? Simply because it takes considerable effort to become a religious virtuoso does not mean that it should be shelved as a desired component of the inductive method. The same fallacious argument could be applied to quantum mechanics: since it deals with an almost incomprehensible realm of empirical data and only few physicists are experts in the area, theories about subatomic physics should be left to those who don't deal with the realm directly and who have only "fugitive, imitational" relations with its study. But religious realities are by definition trans-empirical so how can one study them directly? The answer is surprisingly simple: by employing the same methodologies advocated by the various religious traditions. Elaborates Ken Wilber:

“It is sometimes said that mystic knowledge is not real knowledge because it is not public knowledge, only 'private,' and hence it is incapable of consensual validation. That is not quite correct, however. For the secret to consensual validation in all three realms [material, mental, spiritual] is the same, namely: a trained eye is a public eye, or it could not be trained in the first place; and a public eye is a communal or consensual eye. Mathematical knowledge is public knowledge to trained mathematicians (but not to nonmathematicians); contemplative knowledge is public knowledge to all sages.Even though contemplative knowledge is ineffable, it is not private; it is a shared vision. The essence of Zen is: 'A special transmission outside the Scriptures [that is, between Master and student]; Not dependent upon words and letters [the eye of mind]; Seeing into one's Nature [with the eye of contemplation] and becoming Buddha.' It is Direct seeing by the contemplative eye, and it can be transmitted from teacher to student because it is directly public to that eye. The knowledge of God is as public to the contemplative eye as is geometry to the mental eye and rainfall to the physical eye. And a trained contemplative eye can prove the existence of God with exactly the same certainty and the same public nature as the eye of flesh can prove the existence of rocks.” [Eye to Eye, p. 31]

A comprehensive transcendental paradigm [Berger's inductive option taken to its fullest] would draw freely on the eye of flesh and on the eye of reason; but it would also be grounded in the eye of contemplation. That eye embodies a valid mode of knowledge; it can be publicly shared; it can be communally validated. The inherent limitations of Berger's inductive method are such that theology will not resolve its internal conflicts in any way, except maybe to clarify them more accurately. As such, Berger's emphasis on speculative experience and their apparent equal worth/value only moves theology in the direction of paradox. In other words, given Berger's typology there cannot be a resolution between confrontational and mystical religions, only descriptive clarification of their desired aims. Moreover, I would add, that Berger's typology does not adequately do away with the deductive and reductive arguments posed for and against religions. In sum, Berger's inductive phenomenology lacks the necessary structuralism with which to ground his exploratory methodology.

Although there is much to criticize about Berger's inductive option, it is not without merits. By emphasizing the experiential realm (albeit in a speculative fashion), Berger rightly moves the study of religion back to its own turf. Whatever the religious enterprise may become, the fact remains that religion arises from an experience of the sacred, be it confrontational (Totaliter aliter) or interior (Tat twam asi, "I am That"). Thus, to center sociological and theological analyses on the human experience of the sacred is both appropriate and useful. However, Bergerian induction can be greatly improved if it would expand its understanding of experience to include the following three components: 1) direct empirical observation of religious realities, by which I mean the practical application of the methodologies prescribed and followed by the religious virtuosi; 2) differentiation of the underlying structural elements behind religious experiences, visions, and claims. That is, an examination and clarification of the various structural (hierarchically organized or systematically conjoined) contexts wherein religious experiences take place; and 3) the introduction of a normative religious science with which to appraise the relative truth-value of mystical claims/experiences, such as the one provided by Ken Wilber on legitimacy and authenticity in his book, A Sociable God.

The first component suggested (direct empirical observation) extends Berger's inductive option from the merely theoretical (via "fugitive" experiences) to the transcendental. Instead of having "the rest of us"—the religiously mediocre—lead the forefront of inductive research, the burden should be placed on those who deserve it: the religious virtuosi. We demand the same in science (in fact, all fields where competency is valued), so should we expect the same in religion. As Ken Wilber rightly illustrates:

“Knowledge is not democratic; creativity is not egalitarian. I realize that sounds contrary, but consider: When we want original, concise, and brilliant insights in any field of knowledge, we almost always go to the acknowledged masters of that field. In physics, we look to Newton, then to Einstein, then Heisenberg. In biology, we go to Lamarck and Darwin and Wallace, then Morgan and Watson and Crick. In psychology, to Freud and Adler and Jung and James and Piaget. And why not? Genius is genius..." ["On Heroes and Cults", Foreword by Ken Wilber in Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House!, by Da Free John]

Hence, to strap the inductive approach on those who are experientially not competent (e.g., most sociologists) is to invite nothing less than speculation and debate. If religion is truly an experiential domain, then utilize methodologies that explore that domain directly. The second component (structural differentiation) enables Bergerian induction to ground its phenomenological descriptions in proper contexts. Not all religious experiences are equal or carry the same numinous weight.

A Sociable God

For instance, in "The Hierarchical Structure of Religions Visions" I argued that there is a qualitative difference between religious visions, precisely because not all spiritual manifestations occur on the same structural level. Beholding a vision of Jesus during a dream is different than seeing him while awake or in a near-death experience. The difference here is not so much on content as it is of context. Since, in this case, there are various levels of consciousness (creating several contextual layers), the first step in any critical examination of religious visions is to perform a structural analysis so as to determine which level a particular manifestation is taking place. Likewise, almost all religious experiences can be better understood and described if there is a structural determination. Many so-called religious experiences or visions, for instance, may be nothing more than vivid images which manifest quite normally while one is dreaming.

Simply because an image is of a holy or revered personage does not qualify it automatically as a trans-personal (e.g., genuinely "mystical") manifestation. Thus, the proper adjudication of spiritual experiences lies not in the manifest content of the "apparition," but in the context and structure wherein one beholds the sacred image. That is, on which level of consciousness is the vision seen? Is it a subconscious dream image? A psychic intuition? Or, a genuine encounter with a subtle plane deity? It is only after such a contextual-structure determination that the critical phenomenologist can then proceed to analyze the content of the vision properly. The third component (a critical-normative religious science) is designed to weigh the relative truth-value claims of almost any religious experience. Berger wants his inductive approach to bring various disparate religious experiences in dialogue with each other. Yet, he offers very little help in how differing religious claims can be appraised, except to say "there is no finality to any experience of truth in history." Although this may be true, it does not come to terms with the fact that there are still differences in spiritual encounters.

The inductive option as it stands is actually a phenomenological prelude, "after which", Berger argues, "it is the task of the theologian or philosopher of religion to find a normative measure that will transcend the 'merely historical' comparison." The problem with Berger's notion of this normative measure, however, is that, according to him, it cannot be the "direct result of empirical analysis". Why not? Berger avoids the issue again by dismissing the religious virtuosi as a minority to be followed and taken seriously (as forerunners) in the inductive approach. Instead, Berger resorts to a questionable "defense of mellowness" as the hallmark of true religious liberality, inadvertently betraying his bias for mystical piety and tolerance with the comment, "One could even suggest that those who have truly encountered the 'reality of the unseen' can afford the mellowness of liberality both in their lives and in their thinking."

One cannot help wondering about the "mellowness" of a Moses or a St. Paul: did they afford themselves a "liberality of thought"? No, the normative measure of religious claims cannot adequately be left to speculative theologians who only have (admits Berger) a modicum of imitative experiences of the sacred. Rather, a critical religious science should be left (and open) to those who are the religious virtuosi. We do not allow nor accept in our academic communities judgments made by non-specialists on the latest findings in science or scholarship. We always look, as Wilber pointed out, to the acknowledged experts of the field. This does not mean to say that others do not have a say in appraising religious claims, but only that we ground our judgments in light of expert testimony.

Perhaps one of the best normative measures developed concerning the critical appraisal of religious experiences/claims comes from Ken Wilber, who has done extensive work on the hierarchical structure of consciousness. Wilber's argument is clear and succinct: Take religion out of the realm of faith and study its relative truth-value claims by actually pursuing its described methodologies. Obviously this entails making a major commitment to one's object of study. But, don't we expect the same in any other field of endeavor, such as medicine, law, or even sports? On close scrutiny it becomes clear that Berger's approach is not truly inductive at all in the experiential sense, but is rather a liberal attitude toward religious phenomena in general. To move beyond Bergerian induction necessitates a willingness not only to take religious realities seriously, but to actually explore directly that realm. Berger's mistake is that he disdains the deductive and reductive options for not taking religion seriously enough, while at the same time postulating an inductive approach that turns the religious enterprise from a truly experiential encounter into a sophisticated debate over transcendental descriptions. To talk about the merits of "painted cakes" does not provide one with any true sense of what it is like to actually eat a "real" cake. Likewise, to argue about the ontological status of religious realities without actual experiential engagement is to misunderstand entirely mysticism/spirituality and the proper definition of induction.


Berger is a liberal, armchair speculator when its comes to religious experiences.

I think the reason I am so harsh on Peter Berger's position, as outlined in The Heretical Imperative, is because it fails to take the mystic's position seriously enough. A surface reading of Berger suggests that he is, in fact, an advocate of mysticism (or personal religious experiences), but a closer reading indicates something else. It indicates, rather, that Berger is a liberal, armchair speculator when its comes to religious experiences. Moreover, in a recent book (1992), Berger even suggests that Saint Paul was one of the greatest religious virtuosi of all times. Well, how does he know, especially given the fact that he has only skimmed the surface of mystical encounters? He writes as if he knows only because he has done what the mystics have generally argued against: reading versus experiencing the accounts of spiritual luminaries. Saint Paul could be, as far as Berger knows, as deluded in his visions of the risen Christ as John-Roger Hinkins is about seeing Sawan Singh in 1963, some fifteen years after the latter's death. Given Berger's approach to mystical matters, he cannot possibly know because he is unwilling to do what any good scientist should: utilize the proffered technique and experiment repeatedly with it to discover the phenomenon face to face.

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