Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My response to panel on Religious and Mystical Experience at SBL

I participated in a panel jointly sponsored by the Religious Experience and Esotericism and Mysticism sections of the SBL, giving a response to three papers - by Frances Flannery, Istvan Czachesz, and Jim Davila.

If you would like to read my paper, it's after the jump.

I would like to begin by offering my thanks to all three authors for their thought-provoking articles. My discussion will consider each paper in turn, while also making comments drawing the papers together. I am starting with Jim’s paper, “Ritual Praxis in Ancient Jewish and Christian Mysticism.”

Jim’s paper is a lucid discussion of the issues involved in discovering the relationships between ancient instructions for ritual practice and mystical experiences. His survey of the sources for these rituals surveys texts that provide explicit directions, first-hand accounts of mystical experiences, fictional accounts, and architecture and artifacts. His discussion of how to glean rituals from first-hand or fictional accounts is very useful. I would emphasize that the Hekhalot literature, as discussed later in the paper, also contains many ritual instructions intended to bring angels down from heaven (for example, the Sar ha-Panim or Prince of the divine Countenance) and instructions for travel to the heavenly throne room. The instructions for invoking angels, in particular, include many details of ritual practice that are similar to some of those in Sefer ha-Razim. As for the Babylonian incantation bowls, I question whether in most cases we can regard the rituals accompanying their use as mystical in nature. As Jim points out, most of them are protective and exorcistic, intended to protect those named on them from demonic attacks. It is also difficult to discern exactly what rituals would have accompanied the use of these bowls, because we do not possess any kind of accompanying ritual handbook which explains how they were used once they were written. In terms of methodology, Jim’s work and the work of others has demonstrated amply how useful cross-cultural comparisons are, either within the closer culture area of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern societies or farther afield, for example his own comparison with the Hekhalot rituals and shamanistic traditions from Siberia, North and South America, and Japan. Jim’s most intriguing suggestion for comparison is his last, with modern ceremonial magic. I think this suggestion is well worth following up, and there are anthropologists who have already written ethnographies of a number of groups using the various techniques of ceremonial magic, whether or not derived from the Golden Dawn – for example T. M. Luhrmann’s study, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England, and Felicitas Goodman’s Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences. Other comparative possibilities also suggest themselves – to the meditative and ritual techniques of medieval and early modern Jewish mystics, among them Abraham Abulafia and Isaac Luria (via Luria’s disciple, Hayyim Vital). J. H. Chajes’ study Between Worlds is a useful entry into the world of Safedian Kabbalah, where these techniques were developed and elaborated. The proposals that Jim makes in his paper have the potential to be very useful in helping us to understand the experiences of ancient Jewish and Christian mystics.

I now turn to Istvan’s and Frances’ papers. My expertise is in the study of mysticism in late antiquity, not in cognitive neuroscience. My comments here will center what I think is useful in Istvan’s and Frances’ papers for the study of mysticism, and on questions I have about whether, and how, the insights of neuroscience can be applied to the study of mysticism in late antiquity.

Let us begin first with basic definitional questions raised by both Istvan’s and Frances’ papers – how can we define both religion and mysticism? Is mystical experience necessarily religious? Frances’ definition assumes this, when she says that mysticism is a “sub-category of religious experiences that entails experiences rooted in personal bodily expressions of an epistemological revelation.” Questions of definition have bedeviled the study of religion for many decades, and there is no unified definition that all or even most scholars would agree upon. The same is true for the study of mysticism, perhaps even more acutely. Earlier definitions of mysticism saw mystical experience as “union with the divine,” but this definition excludes religious communities whose practitioners deny the possibility of such unions, non-theistic religions, nature mysticism, mystical experiences by people who do not belong to a particular religious community, and probably others that I am not thinking of. One of the great virtues of William James’ discussion of mysticism in his Varieties of Religious Experience is that he attempted to collect a very wide range of testimonies of mystical experience and then present them on a spectrum of experiences. He does come up with a well-known synthetic definition but does not deny the mystical aspects of experiences that do not fit the full definition. Istvan’s paper would appear to agree with this approach (when it says that “mystical experience should include sensations of being near to superhuman, absolute, ultimately significant, hidden, or overwhelming things and beings,” p. 3) but to take it back when it says “Mystics maintain elaborated philosophical and exegetical traditions and emphasize the importance of a sustained, long-term engagement with them” (p. 11). This is certainly not true of all mystics. I think that there needs to be much more careful attention paid to exactly what mystical experiences are being studied through neurological testing, in order to end up with results that will be meaningful for understanding mystical experiences. And if we want the results to be relevant to mysticism in late antiquity, following a definition such as that offered by April DeConick in Paradise Now would be helpful, as Frances says. DeConick’s definition “identifies a tradition within early Judaism and Christianity centered on the belief that a person directly, immediately, and before death can experience the divine, either as a rapture experience or as one solicited by a particular praxis.”

Istvan’s paper surveys a range of neurological studies that attempt to determine the parts of the brain activated by a variety of activities that the researchers consider religious or potentially religious – meditation by Tibetan Buddhists or Franciscan nuns, glossolalia, Bible reading, and rhythmic dance and music engaged in by Pentecostal Christians. He says, however, that “It is important to note that simply observing that a certain brain area plays some role in a certain kind of experience is not yet a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon,” because “one has to keep in mind that any real-life cognitive and behavioral phenomena depends on the cooperation of a network of brain areas.” Therefore discovering what part of the brain is active when a certain activity is done is an interesting fact, but does not necessarily explain the phenomenon. One question I would have about these findings is whether they tell us anything about how the practitioners themselves would explain their own experiences? One advantage that researchers of contemporary religious activity have over studies of ancient religion is that they can observe and even take part in religious performances, as well as ask people directly what their experiences are. Has this been done? I think it would be interesting to see if the neurological findings align with the practitioners’ reports of their own experiences.

Finally, I would like to ask how these studies of contemporary practitioners of various religions can apply to the study of ancient religious texts? As Jim has pointed out, the way we learn about ancient mystical experiences is by interpreting texts that may be first-person accounts, or fictional accounts, or ones that correlate certain ritual activities with experiences such as visionary dreams – but we cannot ask ancient people what their experiences were. Nor do we know how close the written accounts are to what people actually experienced. It is much easier for us to figure out what ritual activities people engaged in. Perhaps by making a catalog of ritual activities that the ancient texts refer to, and then testing people today who engage in those ritual activities, we might be able to learn something about the areas of the brain that would have been activated in ancient people who did those same rituals. Frances’ paper, it seems to me, is making the first steps towards trying to do something like this in her examination of the Testament of Abraham.

Istvan’s discussion, however, leaves out a crucial element in the study of experience, whether ancient or contemporary, whether religious, mystical, or another kind of experience – the role of culture and language in determining experience – both the experience itself and how it is later interpreted. Steven Katz has famously stated that, “There are no pure experiences … it is not just a question of studying the reports of the mystic after the experiential event but of acknowledging that the 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.” The virtue of Katz’s position is that it strives to deal with the differences in mystical experiences across cultures and religions, rather than eliding them. Frances modifies Katz somewhat, saying that “the brain simultaneously processes religious or mystical experience as stimuli of various neurological regions of the brain along with cultural matrices of interpretation, and that these are inseparable even on a neurological level of processing.” Frances’ account of mystical experience is sensitive to the particular cultural matrix of a particular account of mystical experience, even if she would not go as far as Katz does.

Despite my hesitation to identify all mystical experiences as religious, there are several aspects of Frances’ definition of mystical experience in antiquity that I think are quite interesting and useful, especially her insistence on paying attention to the body. Ancient accounts of mystical experience do often include bodily descriptions – for example, a passage in the Hekhalot literature refers to the experience of standing in limitless space with one’s feet cut off [need to find exact reference]; in the Apocalypse of Abraham, Abraham finds himself prostrate, clutching at the rolling floor of heaven; and Paul is taken up to the third heaven “whether in the body or out of the body.” And various ritual practices involving the body are often a requirement to achieve specific mystical experiences – for example, again in the Hekhalot literature, in order to encounter an angel and speak with him, the practitioner typically has to fast for a certain number of days, eating only bread he has baked and water he has drawn, isolating himself from all other people in a room, and reciting prayers and adjurations – all physical, bodily activities.
The question I asked earlier – about how the neurological studies can be useful for the study of mystical experience in antiquity – is answered in an interesting way by Frances, when she says that “when we marginalize the body in our discussions of mysticism in antiquity, we miss the one sure bridge we have to antiquity…. it is our embodiment that is the one sure window into those persons who composed, heard, and/or circulated the mystical texts.” She then focuses on details that Jim also addresses in his paper from the point of view of ritual studies – the bodily expressions in mystical texts. The texts describe body postures, the senses, affective changes in the body, etc. These insights are easy to apply to Frances’ discussion of the Testament of Abraham, which includes many physical actions that correlate with affective experiences – for example, when Abraham washes the stranger’s feet, his “heart was moved and he wept over the stranger.” Her discussion of the Testament of Abraham also accords well with the cross-cultural approach that she and Jim both advocate, when she compares the activities in the Testament with those typically engaged in by someone who engaged in dream incubation at a temple of Asclepius. It will be interesting to see Frances’ full exploration of the Testament of Abraham in the light of cross-cultural studies of mystical experience and ritual and the findings of cognitive neuroscience.

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