There appear to be two main objections to the use of an approach to mystical literature utilizing a matrix involving the findings of W.T. Stace, Evelyn Underhill and W.H. Auden. One objection is that they assume the existence of an experience of mystical union which is the same for everyone -- and which, in their terms, does not actually exist. The second objection occurs in the examination of this so-called mystical experience in Eastern texts: Locating Eastern mysticism in a matrix devised by Western scholars misrepresents the Eastern texts and Eastern mysticism, as if Eastern mysticism were an offshoot of Christianity.

Both objections have a certain validity. You would not -- in the
interest of clarity and truth -- want to be explaining a commonality
where there is none. And you would not want to be equating Eastern
religions with Western ones, or tacitly urging any kind of superiority of Western religion (or culture) over Eastern.
But both objections stem from a common misconception about the
method and intentions of Stace, Underhill and those of who use their categories to help sort out mystical texts. The misconception is that there is some kind of political and cultural agenda behind the
analyses -- that these analyses intend to build up a rationale for the equivalence of Christian and Eastern mystical experience, or even that they intend to build up a case for Christianity's superiority.
Now, given that a lot of 19th and earlier 20th century scholars
approached their subjects with exactly this intent, it's easy to see
how there could be sensitivity to this possibility. Steven Katz argues (in
Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis), in essence, that Stace's common "mystical experience" fails to account for the differences between various religions, and says that different religious traditions, values and cultural figures will give rise to different mystical experiences -- there can't be a single common mystical experience because the culture and religion produce the form of the experience, and thereis no single common culture or religion.
Similarly, Edward Said's idea of "orientalism" would warn that
Western scholars for centuries treated extra-Christian religions as curiosities, or descendants from, or crippled versions of
Christianity. This means the errant scholar would rearrange any
material he or she encountered in terms of Christian belief.
No doubt these errors used to happen frequently. But the fact
that they happened frequently does not imply they happen universally. R.A. Nicholson's turn of the century writings on Sufism here and there show "orientalist" sentences, but the overall attitude of his writing reveals great respect for Sufi practice and belief, and while he sometimes makes comparisons to Christian ideas and uses Christian terms in translation of difficult Arabic and Persian words, I can't see any indication that he believed Sufism to be quaint or inferior to Christianity. He gave as clear a picture as he could of Sufism, and much of what he said gets repeated in different ways in recent scholarship, both Western and Eastern. It's not fair of Said or any other critic to impute comprehensive, universal guilt to all scholars working before 1978 (the date of both Said's and Katz's most influential works in this regard).
Let me provide a categorical example of what I mean: Underhill in
the 1920s and Stace in the 1950s were not working deductively. That is, neither meant to -- or indeed did -- set up a hypothesis about mystical experience and then set out to prove it. Katz assaults Stace with the charge that Stace's epistemology (in
Mysticism and Philosophy) is inconclusive and illogical because it fails to recognize the differences between cultures and religions that will inevitably give rise to various kinds of mystical experience; he speaks as though Stace created a framework and then set about to prove it logically.




A Note on Methods of Reading Mystical Literature
by Dana Wilde
But this is not what Stace did. Stace undertook to read as much
mystical testimony as he could, as widely as he could, and then tried
to categorize the information he found. The same was true of
Underhill (in, e.g.,
Mysticism). It's legitimate to wonder whether Stace's and Underhill's investigations were limited by an overabundance of reading in the Western traditions and too little in the Eastern; but that possible error can be tested by reading in Eastern traditions and asking whether evidence of Eastern texts diverges from the categories Stace and Underhill suggested. In fact Daniel Merkur ("Unitive Experiences and the State of Trance") did essentially this, and concluded that the evidence of the texts weighed against Katz's contention: He concluded that Katz was wrong because Katz's logic implying that different backgrounds would always create different mystical experiences is not borne out by the evidence.
And if either Stace's or Underhill's categories seem errant in any
way, it seems to me (by way of speculation) that either one of them
would be happy to accept modifications of their analyses if the
evidence warranted it.
So really what we are doing when we use Stace's, Underhill's and
Auden's categories to talk about mystical experiences as they are
formed in literary texts involves two processes: 1) We are asking the literary texts if they reveal or describe or imply the phenomena indicated in Stace's, Underhill's and Auden's descriptions (and by extension, asking what figures or ideas about mystical experience are particular to this text and similar to other texts), and 2) we are testing Stace's, Underhill's and Auden's categories to see if they are valid; that is, we may run across a text that is clearly mystical, but that works outside the categories of our authorities. In this case, we can modify the categories -- as Arthur Clements indeed has done (in
Poetry of Contemplation) by introducing R.C. Zaehner's note that Stace leaves feelings of "love" out of his matrix, and also adding the sense of timelessness and the observation that a mystical experience may exhibit characteristics of both introvertive and extrovertive experience.
Steven Katz's assault on Stace is crippled by the assumption that
Stace intended to logically impose a set of categories on mystical
experience -- "unencumbered by the facts," as a teacher of mine once
described such a situation. Katz's argument, in tandem with Said's
warnings, alert us to a place Stace and Underhill may go wrong, but
because the approach is inductive rather than deductive, there is no
indication that Stace and Underhill should be dismissed as
orientalists. Again, their approaches invite us to test and modify (if
necessary) their frameworks rather than dismiss them as orientalist by association. We should read Eastern mystical texts to find out if they fit these categories; if the texts indeed describe something outside the categories suggested by Stace or Underhill, then the work would be to modify the categories or create new ones, not to bend the texts by logical force to fit the categories (as "orientalists" did).
In my reading over the last ten years, there is so far no reason to think Stace, Underhill or Auden was wrong in saying there is one mystical experience, even though that experience occurs and is described in different ways in different cultures and religious traditions. Clements even identifies it in the literature of modern science. There are points at which Stace seems too rigid in his definitions, and places in which Underhill seems to rely too heavily on examples from Christian traditions (although she does, indeed, quote Rumi and other non-Christian writers). But despite cultural differences in description and interpretation, the mystical experience in its core, origin and outcome looks very much like the same thing from text to text, culture to culture, mystic to mystic. And Stace and Underhill have made the clearest efforts I know of at describing the similarities and identities.

© Dana Wilde 1999; 2008.




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