(from pp. 205-207 of my Philosophical Mysticism in Plato, Hegel, and the Present [Bloomsbury Academic, 2019])
Chapter 9. Ordinary and Extraordinary Experiences of God
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe.
This is the breath of laws and songs and behaviour,
This is the tasteless water of souls …. this is the true sustenance.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, “Song of Myself,” sec. 17
I’ve shown how Plato lays the foundation for the sort of philosophy that, in Hegel and other modern thinkers, resolves perennial issues about “inner” and “outer,” mind and body, freedom and nature, ethics and rational self-government, value and fact, and religion and science. I hope I’ve made their invaluable work more accessible than it may have been previously.
In this final chapter, I want to say some more about how Plato and the others interpret, in particular, what we call “religious experience.” And thus to contribute something to the discussion that William James set in motion with his rich lectures on The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902).
—Our Everyday Experiences of God—
I’ve been suggesting that our discoveries of inner freedom are experiences of God. For through freedom, love, and forgiveness, we and the world become more self-determining, more ourselves, and thus more fully real; and this fuller reality is God.
The dramatic experiences of liberation that we occasionally have can help us to recognize and appreciate the many smaller experiences of liberation that we have practically every day. And thus to realize that we experience God practically every day, though we may not realize that God is what we’re experiencing. This is what the poets of love, from Rumi through Wordsworth, Whitman, and Mary Oliver, have been trying to help us to realize. When Whitman writes of the “common air that bathes the globe” and that provides “the true sustenance” for souls, he’s evoking the experience, which we have practically every day, of God as freedom and love.
This is why, in my comments about “mysticism,” I haven’t focused on any of the supposedly definitive singular experiences that various mystical traditions describe or allude to. I have focused instead on the more familiar multiple experiences of inner freedom, free inquiry, forgiveness, and love. With the help of teachers like Plato, Hegel, and the mystical poets, experiences of this kind can lead to the kind of understanding of mysticism that I have been advocating in this book. What’s more, however, they seem to me to be more definitive, more conclusive, than the extraordinary experiences that we hear about.
I’ve explained why I think it makes sense to call experiences of liberation and love, experiences of God. They constitute something that’s more self-determining and in that sense more fully real than our merely “mechanical” responses to the external world. But if inner freedom, forgiveness, open-minded thought, and love are what God is, we experience God whenever we experience them.[i] Some of us less often and some of us more often, we all have these experiences, which give us direct access to God.[ii]
Extraordinary “mystical experiences” may well be absolutely conclusive for the people who experience them. But it’s always open to bystanders to ask why they should be convinced by an experience that they themselves haven’t had. Indeed, the person who has had the experience might still wonder, when she’s no longer immediately “in its grip,” what exactly she is justified in concluding on the basis of the experience.
By contrast, the common experiences of inner freedom, forgiveness, and so forth don’t convince us by sheer power, and they don’t go away and stay away for long periods, as extraordinary experiences tend to do. Instead, the common experiences convince us by presenting something that we can see is always available to us, whenever we open our minds and hearts. That’s why I call these common experiences more definitive than the extraordinary ones.
It‘s certainly true that most of us don’t realize that these common experiences give us access to God. Western cultures tend to dismiss the idea that ordinary people can experience God. We’re told either that there is no God, or that God is a separate being whom most people can know only through faith, and not through personal experience.
In fact, even most of what we read about “mysticism” has the (probably unintended) effect of reinforcing, through its emphasis on extraordinary experiences, the assumption that most people don’t and won’t experience God. Teaching like that of Plato, Hegel, Rumi, or Walt Whitman, which might overcome these unfortunate influences by showing us the great significance of our everyday experiences, isn’t available to everyone, everywhere.
Against the assumption that most people don’t and won’t experience God, Eckhart Tolle writes that “I don’t call it finding God, because how can you find that which was never lost, the very life that you are? … There can be no subject-object relationship here, no duality, no you and God. God-realization is the most natural thing there is.”[iii] And he describes this God-realization as the result of “surrender to what is.”[iv]
I would add that this “very life that you are,” or this “what is”—that is, what really is, in you—is your everyday dreams of and efforts toward inner freedom and love. These dreams and efforts are the presence within you of something that’s higher, more self-determining, and thus more fully real than your everyday self-importance, desires, suffering, and so forth. Because you are already intimately familiar with these dreams and efforts, you are already intimately familiar with something that’s higher, more self-determining, and more fully real—that is, you are already intimately familiar with God.
I associate this presence of God within us with the Buddhist doctrine that Buddha-nature is always present in everything—that (as I gather that some say) “everything is a Buddha.” (And likewise with the Vedanta doctrine that Atman is Brahman.) We have only to realize what we have always been. I do think it’s helpful, for this purpose, to spell out in ordinary language how these things are true, as I have tried to do in this book.
But even a person who has received the teaching of someone like Plato, Hegel, Rumi, or Whitman may be reluctant to abandon the comfort of assumptions that they’ve been used to all their lives. This is why the extraordinary experiences that “mystics” report often have a major impact on the people who have them. They break through the assumptions that most of us have lived with for most of our lives—that God can’t be experienced directly, but is only an object of “faith” and may not even exist, so that a person who claims to have experienced God is not making sense and may be just plain crazy. ...
[i] No doubt people also experience God in contemplative prayer, as David Bentley Hart maintains in chapter 6 of his (2013). But I think it’s a mistake to suppose that prayer that we intend as such is the only or even the primary way in which we experience God.
[ii] When I speak of us as having “direct access to God,” as our own inner freedom, forgiveness, and so forth, readers who are familiar with Hegel may wonder: Doesn’t Hegel say that “There is nothing in heaven or in nature or mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation” (HSL p. 68, SuW 5:66, GW 21:54), so that the notion of “direct” (that is, presumably, immediate) “access” is perhaps questioned by Hegel? Indeed it is, and I must admit that the “direct” access that I describe is also indirect, inasmuch as to understand what we have access to, through it, we need a great deal of additional information and thought. What these experiences are experiences of (whether it’s “freedom,” “forgiveness,” “God,” or anything else) isn’t written on their foreheads; like everything important, these concepts are sophisticated, as well as simple. It’s nevertheless true, though, that the access that we have to God through these experiences is much more direct than the access that we might have to some object that’s “outside” our world. It’s direct inasmuch as freedom, forgiveness and God (according to Hegel’s account) are in us in a way that external objects aren’t.
[iii] Eckhart Tolle (1999), p. 187; first emphasis added.
[iv] Eckhart Tolle (1999), p. 191.