Mystic Experience and Conversion

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last posted April 6, 2014, 6:33 p.m.
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A conversation started today about the role of religious experience in conversion:

I'm going to weigh in on this whole debate about the character and meaning of religious experience as soon as I have a religious experience.
— @ayjay, Mar 10 2014

So why am I a Christian at all? Because I am utterly compelled by the character and personality of the Jesus I read about in the Gospels.
— @ayjay, Mar 10 2014

Click the permlinks to see the whole discussions that followed from those tweets.

Alan Jacobs is an author and Professor of the Humanities at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.


John Bunyan was of the opinion that one could not be saved without a mystic revelation of Christ.

In the dialogue between Christian and Ignorance, most commentators (in my experience) focus on the discussion of what, exactly, is saving faith, but at the very end Bunyan tacks on this very bold exchange:

Hope. Ask him if he ever had Christ revealed to him from heaven?

Ignorance. What! You are a man for a revelation! I do believe that what both you and all the rest do say about that matter, is but the fruit of distracted brains.

Hope. Why, man! Christ is so hid in God from the natural apprehensions of the flesh, that he cannot by any man be savingly known, unless God the Father reveals him to them.

Ignor. That is your faith, not mine; yet mine, I doubt not, is as good as yours, though I have not in my head so many whimsies as you.

It’s been a long time since I read it, but this is one of the things about Pilgrim’s Progress that made the strongest impression on me when I realized what Bunyan was claiming.


In a footnote on this passage, Bunyan makes himself even more explicit:

“This by all natural men is deemed the very height of enthusiasm; but a spiritual man knows the blessedness, and rejoices in the comfort of this. It is a close question; what may we understand by it? Doubtless what Paul means when he says ‘It pleased God to reveal his Son in me’, Gal i. 16, that is, he such an internal, spiritual, experimental sight and knowledge of Christ, and salvation by him, that his heart embraced him his [sic] soul cleaved to him, his spirit rejoiced in him; his whole man was swallowed up with the love of him, so that he cried out in the joy of his soul. ‘This is my beloved and my friend — my Saviour, my God, and my salvation. He is the chief of ten thousand and altogether lovely.’ We know nothing of Christ savingly, comfortably, and experimentally, till he is pleased thus to reveal himself to us.” Matt. xi. 27



Much more recently, singer/thespian Johnny Flynn seems to agree with Bunyan, but for him the implication is different since he has had no such experience. Because God cannot be known by personal experience, Flynn concludes he is not worth knowing.

During an obvious reference to the Eucharist, Flynn says his last regret is ”I never knew a part of you / You didn't set in ink.”

The letters that you left behind
No longer shall I read
Blood’s between the pages
And I can’t stand to see you bleed

I’ll soon forget what was never there
Your words are ash and dust
All that's left is the song I've sung
The breath I've taken and the one I must

If you're born with a love for the wrote and the writ
People of letters your warning stands clear
Pay heed to your heart and not to your wit
Don't say in a letter what you can't in my ear.


It is a trope or theme among evangelical Christians that “God desires a personal relationship” with each individual.

What does it look like to have a personal relationship with a deity? There are two camps of thought on this.


Mystics (of whom modern-day “charismatics” are a small subset) take the relatively straightforward path: a relationship that doesn’t involve the felt presence of another person, or at least two-way dialogue, simply isn’t a personal relationship. And because it’s a given that God wants a personal relationship with us, they must insist on revelatory experience of some kind as the ultimate proof of a real relationship.


The more prosaic, conservative end of the evangelical Christian spectrum has a different take. They too lay emphasis on God’s desire for a “personal relationship,” but there is an unspoken understanding that this relationship operates differently from any other personal relationship. God communicates indirectly with us through scripture, spiritual leaders, and circumstances, but refrains from communicating directly with the individual, purely in order to prove our “faith”.

(By ‘faith’ they generally mean a simple kind of belief-subscription: the belief that God exists and wrote the Bible; or, a unilateral choice to ‘allow Jesus into your heart’ — both very different and collapsed ideas from what Bunyan and St. Paul meant by the word.


A common proof-text of this position is John chapter 20, where Jesus says to Thomas (who doubted Christ had been raised from the dead) “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

You can see how the conservative evangelical position leads to a very opposite view of the value of mystical experiences. Under this view, for God to reveal himself directly and experientially to us would be to diminish the value of our “faith” and rob us of an unspecified blessing. Because God would never do such a thing, they denounce those who profess mystical experiences, either as having been deceived by Satan, or as cynical deceivers themselves practicing on the gullible.


I am trying to be fair to both charismatic and fundamentalist evangelicals here. I spent roughly the first half of my childhood in the first side, and the remainder of my youth a true believer on the other.

Both sides’ approaches to mystical experience confused me in ways I had trouble putting into words at the time.


The second/conservative approach described above is by far the more confusing of the two, because most of the time it is atmospheric rather than explicitly taught, and because there are myriad exceptions.

One such exception is each believer’s initial experience of conversion or salvation. Every believer is expected to have such an experience and to be able to describe it vividly and powerfully. Even in fundamentalist churches there seems to be a much higher limit to the level of mysticalness that is tolerated when it comes to salvation experiences.

After salvation, though, it is expected that the believer will get down to the business of studying the text of the Bible, and thereafter experience his or her “personal” relationship with God through reading scripture and the changes of circumstances that follow prayer.


On the charismatic side, there is the obvious difficulty of resolving A) the idea of a God who intensely desires a personal relationship with everyone, with B) the inconvenient rarity of supernatural experiences which would validate those relationships.

In my experience as an adolescent, this dissonance was resolved by lowering the bar of “supernatural experience” to a very reachable level. All claims of revelation were treated as valid without question.

While in Sunday school at a pretty early age (this was while we were still charismatics), after conscientiously volunteering to be saved I was brought into a separate room with a few other children to be prayed over. The intended effect was that we would begin speaking in tongues. The adults prayed over us in tongues, until we made some little noise either by accident or experiment, whereupon we were congratulated upon being saved and dismissed with smiles. These people were very kind and sincere, and I am not exaggerating their conduct (or us childrens’) at all.


From what I can tell, the position of Bunyan was far more like those of modern charismatics — except that he was entirely content that the saved (and thus experiences of mystical revelation which would attend and validate their salvations) would be few in number.


The only other approach I've seen goes back to the basic assumptions in the trope I mentioned above. When evangelicals say “God wants a personal relationship with you” they aren't quoting Scripture but paraphrasing its ideas. The Bible speaks of God as our Father, and as our Husband or Lover, which certainly sound “personal”; but other possibilities suggest themselves to my uneducated mind. I wonder if historically these metaphors have been understood to refer to God's relationship to communities, not individual believers: the Jewish nation, e.g., or the universal Church.

At any rate, suffice to say there are understandings of the Christian faith which do not at all necessitate a direct personal relationship to God except perhaps as mediated through the Church. Mystical experiences are not necessary in these models, but neither are they discarded, just decoupled from the question of salvation.


Prof. Alan Jacobs, who I quoted in the first card above, seems to be of this kind.

Based vaguely on impressions from his writings, I understand C.S. Lewis to have been of this kind also.

At one point, during a time when I still laid great emphasis on mystical experience as integral to the event of salvation, I had a pet half-serious hypothesis: that if C. S. Lewis was in fact “saved,” then no other person in history was ever saved.

This obvious absurdity was my way of expressing my confusion at the time: Lewis's conversion seemed (and still seems) to have been thoroughly genuine, but it also relied on an esoteric and intellectual chain of understanding that remains wholly incomprehensible to most Christians at most times in history. If he was in fact saved, I reasoned (not well, I admit) then perhaps conversion depends on logical understanding more than anything else; and if so, how do I know Lewis's understanding wasn't the truest and deepest possible, or even the only correct one? If so, Lewis and perhaps a handful of others were the only people ever saved in all of history.


A summary of my personal history with mystical experience:

  • As a child and an adolescent in the charismatic movement, I was impressed by the sincerity of the adults enthusiastic for mystic experiences, but baffled by the obvious falseness they were willing to tolerate in my own experience in order to bring me into the fold.
  • In my teens through early twenties, I owned my faith on conservative, fundamentalist terms. I wrote in my journal, "At some point I became a Christian, not because of any single experience of revelation but because I came to accept the events of the Bible to be true."
  • In my mid-twenties, I had my own “mystical experience” when I was confronted suddenly with my inability to objectively know myself, and with the implications of what Bunyan had written (above) and passages of the Bible such as Matthew 7:22 which indicate our unlimited capacity to deceive ourselves.

With the benefit of seven or eight years of hindsight I think I can give an accurate summary of this experience.

It was almost entirely experienced in terms of emotions — depression, wonder, passion, disgust — and imaginative imagery (forgive me if that sounds redundant) which did not feel chosen or even controllable.

In addition there was a thin, intellectual layer, a hardly-articulate questioning of everything I had understood before that point.

It played out over a period of several months.

There was never at any point an audible, visual, or physical component.

(edit: Here's a standard, comprehensive description of what it means to have an 'encounter with God' from a conservative-appropriate protestant Evangelical perspective)


I may revisit this in much more detail later, but suffice to say, at this point my view on this issue changed yet again, and I came to understand a mystic, transformative experience as not just evidence of “salvation” but integral to the event itself.


A Theory of Mystic Experiences

I now turn to a set of concepts which might explain how mystical/religious experiences work, without making any judgment on where they come from, and likewise without appealing to the supernatural. As such, this theory isn't going to settle any debates about spiritualism vs. materialism, but it may explain why these experiences follow the pattern that they do.


The main source of my ideas in this area is a seemingly unrelated book The Muse in the Machine by David Gelernter. The author is focused on the question of understanding human thought and replicating it in computers. His premise is that logic by itself is not enough to duplicate human reasoning, which is characterized by emotional, creative leaps of intuition.

From the dust jacket:

Can we introduce emotion into the computer? …In providing an answer, [Gelernter] not only points to a future revolution in computers but radically changes our views of the human mind itself.

Although much emphasis is placed on the role of logic in thinking, Gelernter explains that emotions are much more important in determining the form and content of our daily thought processes.


Bear with me: I'm going to summarize his model of human thought as briefly as I can, step by step.


First: how do we come to understand abstract words?

What is truth, irony, beauty, purple? You can't define these terms by pointing to an example... You can't get the meaning of the word blue across merely by pointing to, say, a blue crayon and announcing, "This is blue." The obvious question then becomes, "What's blue?" Does 'blue' mean crayon, Crayola crayon, tubular object, paper-wrapped thing, or what?

But how do we come to understand such words?


And, skipping over the details of all his supporting arguments, here's how he explains it.

Picture your memories as a stack of translucent papers with images on them. You can look at those papers in either of two ways.

  1. You can pick up one of the papers and let your eye wander over the picture on it, taking in all the details of that one image.
  2. Or, you can pick up a bunch of papers and hold them all up to the light together. If you did this, the unique details of each would blur away: only the most similar parts shared by most or all of the pictures would stand out.

These two approaches, Gelernter argues, are a picture of how we use our memories and how we begin to think logically.


For example:

...A young child has no reason to think of horses, fish, and chickens as examples of the same general category. But if we tell the child, "An animal is, for example, a horse or a fish or a chicken," it's essential that the child be able to summon horse, fish and chicken memories, overlay them, and consider the common features that emerge. Those common features may be hard or impossible to capture in words, but whatever they are, they form the basis of the child's understanding of the concept animal.

A concept like blue makes an even clearer instance... There is no define blue without recourse to memory overlays. Blue simply is whatever common feature emerges when many blue memories are overlaid.


So take that stack of memories. When you're a toddler, you only know how to use it in one way: taking out one paper and looking indiscriminately at everything in that one picture.

You don't have words for everything you see: you mostly have only feelings and emotions associated with the picture.

Later on, you learn how to sift through and grab a bunch of those pictures and compare their common features. And that's when you start using words with abstract meanings: you learn what "truth" and "purple" mean; you start using those words to solve problems, also known as thinking logically. That's when, for better and for worse, you start to grow up.


David Gelernter calls the childlike way of using memory only one picture at a time “low-focus thought”.

He calls and the mature, logical way “high-focus thought”.


Gelernter illustrates that this spectrum of low/high focus in our thought can be seen in three scales.

First, as described above, it can be seen in the thought processes of a person as they develop mentally from a child into an adult.

Secondly, we have all experienced it as the way our thought process change depending on how tired we are — whether we are fatigued or alert.


Example of low- vs high-focus thought as a function of fatigue/alertness:

Suppose your briefcase clasp is stuck.

If you are well-rested and alert, you’re likely to be in a state of high focus. You will "methodically run down the list of factors that cause briefcases to jam, plan a course of action, and do it."

What if you're not so well-rested?

As we set off down-spectrum, thinking becomes less penetrating and more diffuse, consciousness gradually “spreads out” and…emotion starts to replace problem-solving as the glue of thought. …When a briefcase jams and the owner’s focus level is medium, instead of a cool logical analysis he is more likely to think “last time I did this, it opened.” Thought is less analytical, more concrete. He might simply give the thing a good whack.

What if the briefcase owner is getting tired and bothered?

Confronted with a stuck briefcase towards the bottom of the spectrum, the owner is not likely to solve the problem at all. He is more likely to find himself thinking “that was some hot muggy day when I bought this damned briefcase in Milford—did I overpay?—I pay more than I need to for most things. But I’m better than Bill Schwartz in that regard—Schwartz’s dinner party last fall was kind of fun—Molly sure didn’t want to go—she looked nice in that short midnight blue dress, though—Columbus Avenue, we got the thing in that shop around 76th Street…”


Now let’s suppose our thinker’s focus is just a bit lower. His thought-stream might start out in the same way—might extend, say, through “Schwartz’s dinner party last fall was kind of fun,” and pause there for awhile—various aspects of the party come to mind; and then, next thing he knows, the thinker might find himself contemplating Long Island Sound as he crossed it on a ferry years ago, seated on the stern deck, admiring the glitter of the soft green water on a bright, hazy summer afternoon. That summer afternoon has no obvious connection of any kind with the Schwartz’s dinner…but, for some reason or other, it just comes to mind.


So there we have it:

  • High-focus thought, in which we link thoughts by their abstract, logical similarities in order to solve problems, and
  • Low-focus thought, in which we link seemingly unrelated thoughts by their shared emotional aspects. Gelernter calls this “affect linking”.

Towards the lower end of the spectrum, affect linking causes creativity, metaphor, and in some cases spiritual mind-states to emerge. …Recollection grows broader, more tangible and full ambience and all-inclusive until eventually, a recollection becomes indistinguishable from a hallucination; and other things being equal, the illogic of dreaming waits at the bottom.


We now have something of a basis for understanding how this model applies to religious, mystical experiences:

The cognitive spectrum provides us with a vantage point from which we can survey and make sense of human thought as a whole. More: it tells us something about the dynamics of human thought—its history over multiple time scales.

  1. "Over the course of a day fatigue sets in and the character of thought changes."
  2. "Over the first decades of life maturity comes about, and the character of thought changes."
  3. "Over the millenia of human existence the modern mind emerges, and the character of thought changes."

I'll call these the Big Three cognitive transitions. They differ radically in character and take place over radically different time scales. But it's a curious fact that, if we view these three transitions from the spectrum’s vantage point, they all three seem to tell the same underlying story. It is the story of gradual transition across the spectrum… The three transitions remain radically different, but the underlying theme turns out to be the same.


As I mentioned before, Gelernter's book is mainly interested computer syntheses of human creative problem-solving, but he devotes a couple of chapters to looking at what his ideas mean for poetry, ancient thought, and spirituality.

Gelernter believes low-focus thought is the medium or music of mystical spiritual experiences.

His argument for this is rich and well worth reading. I can't include it in full here, and I'm afraid to edit it down lest I mutilate it, but you can read a few of the most relevant pages of it in this PDF scanned from the book.


Crucially, Gelernter explicitly does not believe his model “explains away” spiritual experience, but rather elevates it to the same validity and importance as high-focus thought.

From the last page of the above-linked PDF:

…One more patronizing attempt to explain religious and spiritual phenomena out of existence? I think not. Because I can assert—the spectrum [of high/low focus] allows me to assert— that the spiritual state of minds is in fact truth revealing. It produces not merely a certain something-or-other feeling but fresh knowledge, although not necessarily of a sort that can be communicated. The “connectedness” of which spiritualists speak is exactly the same stuff out of which discoveries of the structure of benzene are made. It is real connectedness. Not every affect link reveals a fact of scientific value, or of any practical value, but every affect link reveals a truth.


Stepping back again:

Sustained low-focus thought being the state which gives rise to creativity and art, dreams and transcendant spiritual experiences,


Different personalities, different times of life and different times in history being especially friendly to low-focus thought,

We begin to see why religious experiences often follow the pattern that they do.