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Philosophy of Religion

Contextualism, Decontextualism, and Perennialism: Suggestions for Expanding the Common Ground of the World's Mystical Traditions

Timothy A. Mahoney
University of Texas at Arlington

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ABSTRACT: This paper addresses religious epistemology in that it concerns the assessment of the credibility of certain claims arising out of religious experience. Developments this century have made the world’s rich religious heritage accessible to more people than ever. But the conflicting religious claims tend to undermine each religion’s central claim to be a vehicle for opening persons to ultimate reality. One attempt to overcome this problem is provided by "perennial philosophy," which claims that there is a kind of mystical experience common to all religious traditions, an experience which is an immediate contact with an absolute principle. Perennialism has been attacked by "contextualists" such as Steven Katz who argue that particular mystical experiences are so tied to a particular tradition that there are no common mystical experiences across traditions. In turn, Robert Forman and the "decontextualists" have argued that a certain kind of mystical experience and process are found in diverse traditions, thereby supporting one of the key elements of perennialism. I review the contextualist-decontextualist debate and suggest a research project that would pursue the question of whether the common ground of the world’s mystical traditions could be expanded beyond what has been established by the decontextualists. The extension of this common ground would add credibility to the claims arising out of mystical experience.

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It is appropriate at this conference to address — however narrowly and briefly — an important twentieth-century development in the world's religious life. Advances in scholarship, communication, transportation, and mass education have made the richness of the world's religious heritage accessible to more people than ever before. But this increased accessibility has not strengthened religious belief, but may, in fact, have had the opposite effect. This is because the revolution in accessibility to the world's religious traditions has made more people than ever before aware of the conflicting claims of the world's religions. Of course, each tradition's adherents believe their tradition to be the primary expression of the truth, but there seems to be no obvious "non-partisan" way to determine which tradition has superior credentials. Thus the conflicting claims of competing religious traditions tend to undermine each religion's central claim that it is a vehicle for opening oneself to ultimate reality. One attempt to overcome this problem is provided by "so-called perennial philosophy school," to use the term used by Robert K. C. Forman and others. According to Forman (The Problem of Pure Consciousness, 3), perennialists include William James, Evelyn Underhill, Joseph MarŽchal, William Johnston, James Pratt, Mircea Eliade, and W.T. Stace. This school claims that there is a kind of mystical experience common to all religious traditions, an experience which is "immediate direct contact with...a[n] absolute principle" (Ibid.). Such an experience would provide an essential common core which transcends any differences — especially doctrinal differences — among traditions and it would also be evidence for religion's credentials to be a vehicle to the ultimate reality. But this "perennialist" claim has been strongly challenged by many scholars who are characterized as "contextualists" by the one of most prominent of these, Steven T. Katz ("Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning" in Mysticism and Language, 1992, 5). In turn, Katz's position has been challenged by another group of scholars characterized as "decontextualists" by their most prominent member, Robert Forman. Forman claims that his position "swings the pendulum back toward the perennialist philosophy camp" (The Problem of Pure Consciousness, 39). But I will argue that the kind of experience central to Forman's model — what Forman calls a "Pure Consciousness Event" — provides support for perennialism only insofar as it removes a compelling objection to the perennialist position. And I see no easy way to supplement the decontextualist in order to present a full-blown argument for perennialism. In this paper I undertake the much more modest task of suggesting a few steps which might be taken in the direction of perennialism by expanding the common ground which decontextualism has established. These steps are by no means assured: my suggestions represent a research project to determine whether or not there is agreement across religious traditions on the questions which I pose concerning pure consciousness events. The idea behind these questions is that the more agreement among the world's mystics on the issues raised by the questions, the better the case for perennialism.

I proceed as follows. First, I very briefly summarize the contextualist position using Katz as the paradigm. Next, I review general criticisms of the contextualist approach, define "pure consciousness events," show how Forman uses these events to criticize contextualism, and describe the key elements of Forman's decontextualist model of mystical experience. Finally, I assess what kind of support Forman's decontextualism gives the perennialist position, and consider three questions the answers to which may or may not augment the common ground carved out by contextualism.

Stephen T. Katz recognizes the promise that mysticism could overcome religious boundaries (Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, 1). Nonetheless, he vigorously opposes the claim that there is a commonality of mystical experience between any traditions. I take the position of Katz in particular and contextualism in general to be this. First, there is the premise "that there are no pure (i.e., unmediated) experiences" ("Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism" In Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, 1978, 26, and "The 'Conservative' Character of Mysticism" in Mysticism and Religious Traditions, 1983, 4). This implies that "experience itself, as well as the form in which it is reported, is shaped by concepts which the mystic brings to, and which shape his experience" ('Conservative,' 4). After a careful review of specific mystical texts, Katz concludes that "the experiences of mystics comes into being as the kind of experience it is as a necessary consequence of the linguistic-theological and social-historic circumstances which govern the mystical ascent. And these circumstances are grounded in specific ontological schemata which shape the configuration of the quest and its goal ('Conservative,' 43). Future research in this area should pay much closer attention to the context of particular mystical texts than has been the norm in the past ('Conservative,' 5 ff.). In sum, Katz concludes that the important differences among major religious traditions are not somehow reconciled in mystical experience; rather these also show up as differences in mystical experience itself because they necessarily shape mystical experience. Thus Katz's view implies that mystical experience is the wrong place to look for something which will reconcile the profound differences among religions, thereby helping to restore the credibility of religious claims to be vehicles to the ultimate.

Forman's criticisms of Katz in particular and contextualism in general — which Forman calls "constructivism" — are contained in The Problem of Pure Consciousness (1990, 15-21). First, Katz never defends his crucial assumption that all experience is mediated by language. Second, Katz implicitly makes the implausible assumption that any difference in religious concepts leads to a difference in mystical experience. Closely related to this is the criticism that Katz implicitly assumes a one-to-one relation between concept and experience, but such an assumption ignores the key distinction between sense and reference. In addition, the claim that the religious context causes the content of mystical experience is an instance of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy. Finally, there are recorded cases of persons whose mystical experiences are so unexpected to themselves that these experiences are not reasonably explained by Katz's contextualist paradigm. Katz himself believes the critique in this book does not undermine his position (Mysticism and Language, 5). I do not wish to pass judgment on these criticisms, although they seem to me to have prima facie force. This part of Forman's position is destructive, and I am interested primarily in the constructive model of mystical experience which Forman provides.

Forman's model seems to arise from his reflections on what he calls the "pure consciousness event" which is found in many traditions. A "pure consciousness event" is defined as "a wakeful though contentless (nonintentional) consciousness" (8). Forman recognizes that many will claim that the very idea of such a state of consciousness is absurd, but a defense of the possibility of such a state is provided, and evidence from several traditions is offered to show that this possibility has been actualized. Forman argues that such events cannot be explained by Katz because there is no form, content, or shaping process that is associated with them (21-25). To account for these phenomena Forman produces his own model of mystical experience (30-43). Forman draws a parallel between the culmination of what he takes to be "mystical forgetting" and the sensory experience of an observer placed in a Ganzfeld, that is, a completely patternless visual field:

This is the model that I propose for the epistemological structure of the spiritual transformative process which culminates in the PCE ["pure consciousness event"] and which is, I believe, more adequate than is the constructivist's model of 'remembering and superimposing.' Meditators and mystics practice a technique in which they recycle a constant mental subroutine. This technique serves as the catalyst to enable the mind to come to 'forget' all thought and sensation. Gradually or suddenly, just as one comes to forget the sense of vision during the Ganzfeld experience, the mind comes to forget all of its visual processes during the PCE ["pure consciousness event"]. (38)

Forman in a later essay in the initial volume of The Journal of Consciousness Studies (38-49), "'Of Capsules and Carts': Mysticism, Language and the Via Negativa," argues that Katz may be right in thinking that language does have a role to play in mystical experience, although it is not the role which Katz thought. Forman thinks language has two roles. First, language may be used to prod one to drop one's preconceptions and enter onto the path of forgetting (46). Second, language may be used after-the-fact to describe mystical experiences, but this language does not shape the experience as Katz avers.

This is a very brief sketch of the model of mystical experience Forman provides and the dialectical milieu in which it was produced. I should note here that Forman does not claim that pure consciousness events and the 'forgetting' technique described in his model are universal. Rather he leaves this for other investigators to determine on a case by case basis (39-40). But his discussion of the model includes examples from Christianity — Pseudo-Dionysius (32) and Meister Eckhart (30-31) — and Buddhism — Buddhaghosa (32-33) — and he earlier cites contributors who describe pure consciousness events in the Hindu (26) and Jewish traditions (26-27). So Forman quite clearly thinks such events occur within the context of these major religious traditions, theistic and non-theistic.

As I noted at the beginning of this paper Forman himself claims that his model "swings the pendulum back toward the perennialist philosophy camp." As far as I can see it does so solely by providing a counter-argument to the contextualist claim that mystical experiences are not the same between religious traditions. If this claim were true, then perennialism's claim "that mysticism is alike from one culture to another" (The Problem of Pure Consciousness, 39) obviously would be false. This is clearly an important initial step in defending perennialism. But the decontextualist position articulated by Forman does not seem to provide any direct support for the crucial perennialist claim that there is a type of mystical experience found across cultures which represents, as Forman puts it, "an immediate, direct contact with a[n]...absolute principle" which is variously defined by each tradition (Problem of Pure Consciousness, 3). For neither pure consciousness events themselves nor Forman's model explicitly present any element which corresponds to "immediate, direct contact with a[n] absolute principle." And Forman never states that his model describes an ascent to an immediate experience of the absolute. All Forman's model explicitly affirms is that there is a certain psychological state and a certain method of inducing this state. Furthermore, the examples he cites imply that such a state and method is common to the adherents of different religious traditions. It seems to me that there is no easy way to go from this relatively modest common ground carved out by Forman to a full-blown defense of perennialism. But I think the common ground might be expanded if we can find agreement among traditions on the answers to three questions concerning the pure consciousness events Forman and his colleagues have described.

The first of these questions concerns the nature of the pure consciousness events. I take it that Forman and his colleagues have established that in diverse traditions some such events are taken to be direct contact with the absolute. This does not mean that this evaluation is universal among traditions or even among all the mystics within a particular religious tradition. It simply means that there are some mystics found among diverse traditions which affirm that at least some pure consciousness events are direct contact with the absolute. The first question is this:

1) Do all the mystics who discuss psychological states that can be reasonably identified as pure consciousness events agree that at least some of them are direct contact with the absolute?

It may be that there is debate within a tradition over this question. Some mystics may claim that such events occur, but they are always nothing more than consciousness empty of content, period, and that they should not in any sense be construed as immediate contact with the absolute. Of course the degree of consensus might vary from tradition to tradition, and it would be interesting to explore reasons for the disagreements both within a single tradition, and among diverse traditions. But in general it seems that the more consensus there is among the mystics themselves about the nature of this state of consciousness, the more seriously we should take their claims.

The second question is reserved for those mystics who agree that at least some pure consciousness events are immediate contacts with the absolute. Questions two is this:

2) Are all pure consciousness events immediate contact with the absolute or only some of them?

It may well be that there are conflicting answers to this question. This might seem strange since there can be no phenomenological difference between pure consciousness events, whether or not they are direct contact with the absolute; by their very nature they all lack any phenomenological content. But this is parallel to sense perception where the phenomenological content may be identical in the case of veridical sense perception and in the case of a hallucination. So phenomenological content does not in itself determine the nature of a psychological state. As with the first question, the more consensus, the better.

The third question is reserved for those mystics who claim that only some pure consciousness events are direct contact with the absolute. The third question is this:

3) How can those pure consciousness events which are direct contacts with the absolute be distinguished from those pure consciousness events which are not direct contacts with the absolute?

In other words what "methods" — to use the term in the very broadest sense — can be employed to discern whether or not some such particular event is a direct contact with the absolute? It may turn out that the evaluations of an individual pure consciousness event conflict, with some mystics claiming it is direct contact with the absolute, and others claiming it is not. If the methods employed lead to widespread disagreements on the classification of individual pure consciousness events, this would decrease the credibility of mystical claims. Or it might be that mystics agree on the classification of individual pure consciousness events, but they use diverse methods to reach their conclusions. In this case, consensus would be increased further if some underlying unity could be educed from the seeming diversity of methods. The strongest consensus would result from the discovery that mystics use the very same methods of discernment both within and among traditions.

Even if the answers to these three questions yielded the highest degree of consensus among the world's mystics, a consensus that agreed on which experiences are direct contact with the absolute and the methods for discerning which experiences these are, this would still not prove that the mystics are right. But it would expand the common ground far beyond that established by Forman and decontextualism.

The three questions represent a research project to determine just how far the world's mystics agree on the nature of the pure consciousness events which Forman's decontextualism has highlighted. But the carrying out of this research project would involve the kind of careful attention to detail and the context of individual mystical texts which Katz and his school demand. I urge that such a project be undertaken, and that we keep an open mind until the results are in.

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