Experience and negativity

Thinking about a phrase by Mary Frohlich where she, quoting Denys Turner, talks about the –

faultiness of present-day assumptions which reduce the mystical to an“experience of negativity“ rather than recognizing (as did these great patristic and medieval theologians) that Christian life is founded on a “negativity of experience.”

It took a while for this to sink in and I think it is profoundly true and the consequences enormous. I think the current interest in consciousness, and its altered states, on the effect of drugs on conscious experience, and on Eastern mysticism, has focused attention on experience, and experiences. Likewise the influence of people like Otto. If one were to go merely by the phenomenology of experience it would be difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish ‘genuine’ mystical experiences from those induced by drugs. By ‘genuine’ I mean the experiences of genuinely holy people as compared to people like Huxley and Robert Forman, who would claim neither to be holy or that their experiences were supernatural.

I have given much thought to the experience of negativity, shunyata, the Void, emptiness etc. It is easy to rationalise it as that which is experienced when one sees over the horizon of the empirical world. The ‘beyond beyond’ is empty, not in the sense that it is contingent – the sense in which self and person are seen as empty in Buddhist thought – but in the sense that there is nothing that can be grasped, conceived, or thought. It is easy to go on from this position (for theists anyway) to assert that this emptiness is the plenum of God’s presence, the ‘ground’ of all that is, and that to have experienced it is, however negatively, to have experienced God. Certainly to experience the Void is deeply meaningful. It provides a perspective, perhaps for the first time, from which to see this empirical world no longer as an absolute given, but as ephemeral and contingent. 

The ‘negativity of experience’ is another matter. In prayer I would guess that, for most of the time, it is the normal experience – darkness. One simply holds oneself there in the darkness, experiencing neither the vertiginous emptiness of the Void, nor the loving presence of the Other. 

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