Saturday, May 05, 2007

Thinkquote of the day: On the inadequacy of language to describe spiritual experiences

No words in our human language are adequate or accurate when applied to spiritual realities; and it is the saints and not the sceptics who have most insisted on this. “No knowledge of God which we get in this life is true knowledge,” says St. John of the Cross. It is always confused, imperfect, oblique. Were it otherwise, it would not be knowledge of God. But we are helped by the fact that all the responses of men to the incitement of this hidden God, however it may reach them, follow much the same road. Even though they may call its various stages by very different names.

From Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life (1937: reprint, Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse Publishing, 1995), 51-52, quoted in La Vonne Neff (ed.)., The Gift of Faith: Short Reflections by Thoughtful Anglicans, ABC Publishing (Toronto 2004), p. 41.

Generally, there are two main schools of thought on mystical experience: perennialist and constructivist. Perennialists think that the experience is universal but the terminology is determined by culture and assumptions - that is, the mystic really does discover something about the nature of the universe that is true. Constructivists think that no single experience transcends culture and assumptions, which of course implies that mystics do not really discover anything about the nature of the universe. Of course there are shades in between ...

One thing I consider a shame is the recent vast increase in merely silly ideas on these subjects, many of which we send up in The Spiritual Brain .

The whole of Underhill’s great work Mysticism is online, and is simply the best resource I know of on classical mysticism and mystics.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

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