Transcendence and experience

I am groping with a vague idea, trying to make it explicit. It has been germinating for some time at the back of my mind. It has to do with the negativity of experience when it comes to prayer. There is tacit knowledge – an intuition of the Transcendent, which does not, and cannot, become explicit. This is because explicit knowledge is categorical and conceptual. Lonergan spelled out the difference between explicit knowledge and experience:

“To say that dynamic state [of mystic awareness] is conscious is not to say it is known. What is conscious is indeed experiences. But human knowing is not just experiencing. Human knowledge includes experiencing but adds to it scrutiny, insight, conception, naming, reflection, checking judging… the gift of God’s love ordinarily is not objectified in knowledge, but remains within subjectivity as a dynamic vector, a mysterious undertow, a fateful call to dreaded holiness. Because that dynamic state is conscious without being known, it is an experience of mystery.” (Lonergan, Bernard, Method in Theology, Herder & Herder, New York 1972  p. 106

Tacit knowledge is a conscious experience but there is nothing explicitly known. What is actually going on in religious experience?


Natural mystical experience – oneness leading to the disappearance of the subject/object dichotomy. The experience of the senses does not change, though there is a change in the meaning attributed to what is perceived. What changes is the sense of relationship. What is seen is external to the ‘I’, but not alien to it. On the contrary ‘I’ extends out into ‘all’. Nothing is alien, all is subjective. This is not solipsism. There is a paradox here – a subjectivity shared with the other.

Numinous mystical experience – the relational awareness of the OTHER – mysterium tremendum – who exists over and against the ‘I’. Sometimes this experience appears to be rooted in a specific empirical context, sometimes not. In any case what is important is not what is perceived but what is felt and the meaning attached to these feelings.

Presence – the experience of a transcendent presence, the OTHER. There may be numinous characteristics but here is no self/other dichotomy. The experience of being loved is from within the subjective perspective of the OTHER. There is self and there is the other but instead of being opposed they have merged, each retaining its identity. Each knows the other from within the other’s perspective. ‘I know as I am known.’

The two key elements in these three types of experience are meaning and relationality. Whatever the type of experience, it is perceived as profoundly significant and out of the ordinary.  This perception is not the result of empirical information, nor the result of a conceptual process. It is simply there. Similarly with relationality.


  We tend to think of experience as mediated by the senses but this is not always the case. For example, walking into a meeting, or approaching a group engaged in discussion, we pick up the emotional tenor immediately. We can be instantly aware of a charged atmosphere, of distress, of anger, etc. This is partly by means of a visual perception of the body language of the participants, but only partly. What is grasped is far too complex to be conveyed visually. If this were not the case we would be moved far more by the attitudes and actions we see on film or TV than in fact we are. It is through our relationship with others that emotions and feelings are communicated. There is no relationship with actors on a screen. (I suspect that one of the reasons why the theatre is more ‘dramatic’ is due to the physical proximity of the actors.) The baffling thing about religious experience is that it is possible to be aware of relationship without there being any visual or sensible referent.

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