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On Pike on “Union without Distinction” in Christian Mysticism

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Perennialists regarding the phenomenology of mysticism, like Walter Stace, feel that all Christian mystical experiences are fundamentally similar to each other and to experiences described by mystics across religious traditions, cultures and ages. In his seminal work, Mystic Union: An Essay in the Phenomenology of Mysticism, Nelson Pike convincingly argues that this extreme position is inadequate for capturing the breadth of experiences described by the canonical Medieval Christian mystics. However, Pike may have leaned too far away from perennialism in claiming that all the experiences of (Christian) mystic union are essentially theistic. Here, I argue that Pike did not successfully establish this point and that union without distinction, often described as the pinnacle of “union” by Christian mystics, remains a viable candidate for an instance of a trans-traditionally type-identical mystical experience.

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  1. 1.

    I had the privilege of taking Nelson’s seminar on Christian Mysticism, where he worked through much of the material which would find its way into this treatise, both as an undergraduate (1988) and then again as a graduate student (1990) while at the University of California, Irvine. Nelson was an extremely popular and charismatic instructor; his passion and enthusiasm were both unparalleled and contagious. This paper, owes in part, to two of my essays completed in this course, “Nothing is Universal,” and “The Meaning of (Mystical) Ineffability.”

    I had the further honor of having Nelson serve on my dissertation committee. Mine was the final committee he was a part of and I think his acceptance of the role stemmed in no small part from my focus in the phenomenology of mysticism. My dissertation, The Meaning of Mystical Life: An Inquiry into Phenomenological and Moral Aspects of the Ways of Life Advocated by Dogen Zenji and Meister Eckhart, was completed in 1997.

    I am deeply indebted to David Smith (1986), who served as my dissertation chair and graciously invited me to participate at the conference held in Nelson’s honor at UCI and contribute to this volume. His support and insightful comments have helped me more than I can express.

    For their assistance and suggestions towards the formation of this paper, I am also indebted to Christyl Everleigh, Don Fallis, Alexandra Duckworth, and the participants of the Nelson Pike Conference, held at UCI on December 11, 2011, where a preliminary outline of this paper was presented.

  2. 2.

    “Phenomenography” is a term Nelson coined for, “the study of phenomena by way of reports thereof” (Pike 1992, p. 168). Nelson credits Augustin Poulain’s (1910) notion of and methodology for “descriptive mysticism” as influencing his own approach.

  3. 3.

    In contrast to discursive prayer, contemplative prayer involves focusing one’s attention on a concept, image, or short passage in a manner akin to meditation.

  4. 4.

    Stace lays out his case for the claim that there are two types of mystical experiences, introvertive and extrovertive, which are fundamentally similar across religious traditions, ages, and cultures in two works both published in 1960a,b, Mysticism and Philosophy and The Teachings of the Mystics.

  5. 5.

    I first became aware of the diagrams during Nelson’s seminar on Christian Mysticism at UCI in 1988. I am uncertain as to whether or not they were Nelson’s own creations. Strangely, these diagrams did not find their way into the text of Mystic Union; although they are alluded to in the nested set of concentric circles on the book’s front cover.

  6. 6.

    All the experiences are phenomenologically given as taking place within the domain of the soul (represented by the bordering rectangle), except Rapture which differs from Full Union in that it includes the experience of the soul being transported out of/above itself.

  7. 7.

    Because of this perceived sense of distance/separation, the Prayer of Quiet is often not considered a stage of “union” at all.

  8. 8.

    Pike gives an in-depth analysis of these “spiritual sensation” in Mystic Union, Chapter 3.

  9. 9.

    Re., Pike 1992, pp. 20–21.

  10. 10.

    In Mystic Union, Chapter 7, Pike responds to a sustained argument, developed by William Forgie (1984), that descriptions of “union with God” within the Christian mystical literature are heavily laden with tradition-specific interpretations and that a truly (phenomenologically) theistic mystical experience is incoherent.

  11. 11.

    Rusybroeck’s The Book of Supreme Truth, Chapter XII, “Of the Highest Union, without Difference or Distinction,” pp. 244–246); quoted in Pike 1992, pp. 29–31.

  12. 12.

    Pike 1992, p. 31.

  13. 13.


  14. 14.

    Both Ruysbroeck and Tauler were heavily influenced by the work of Meister Eckhart (1260–1327), the influential German mystic, priest and theologian. For an excellent analysis of Eckhart’s understanding of this pinnacle state of contemplative prayer, which he referred to as the “Breakthrough to the Godhead” see Forman’s (1994), Meister Eckhart: The Mystic as Theologian. In The Meaning of Mystical Life, I compare Eckhart’s views on “mystical life” with those of Dogen Zenji, the 13th century founder of the Japanese Soto School of Zen Buddhism.

    John of the Cross was the noted confessor of Saint Teresa of Avila. While Pike draws extensively on Teresa’s vivid and detailed descriptions of the earlier stages of union, Teresa is strangely quiet on “union without distinction.”

  15. 15.

    Pike 1992, p. 32.

  16. 16.

    Pike 1992, p. 33.

  17. 17.

    From Tauler’s, “First Sermon for the Second Sunday of the Epiphany,” quoted in Pike 1992, pp. 37–38.

  18. 18.

    The very existence of a contentless state of consciousness is controversial. In his influential 1874 work, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint, Franz Brentano (1973) posited “intentionality” (the quality of being “of or about something”) as an essential quality of all mental states. For a contemporary model of conscious experience which is consistent with sort of experience, see D.W. Smith’s (1986) essay, “The Structure of (Self) Consciousness” and his selection in this volume, where he connects his model to the form of “pure consciousness” referred to in Buddhism as “nibbanic consciousness.”

  19. 19.

    Stace (1960a), Mysticism and Philosophy, pp. 85–87.

  20. 20.

    See, Mysticism and Philosophy (Stace 1960a), Chapter 2, “The Problem of the Universal Core.” Pike points out that Stace was not the first scholar of mysticism to advocate perennialism based on apparent similarities in descriptions of experiences across religious traditions; he spends some time on the work of Paul Elmore More, who in 1932 in his work, Christian Mysticism: A Critique, posited the existence of a universal psychological state “utterly devoid of content and therefore indescribable” common to all mystics of “all lands and times,” re., Pike 1992, p. 87.

    For an extended discussion of the case for Stace’s introvertive state, also referred to as a “pure conscious event,” see The Problem of Pure Consciousness, an anthology edited by Robert Forman (1990).

  21. 21.

    Stace (1960a), Mysticism and Philosophy, p. 88; quoted in Pike 1992, p. 89.

  22. 22.

    See both of Stace’s (1960a,b) works for his presentation of the evidence, Mysticism and Philosophy and The Teachings of the Mystics.

  23. 23.

    The pictures appear in the anthology, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, edited and translated by Paul Reps (1970) and Nyogen Senzaki.

  24. 24.

    These early stages of the Zen experience are arguably similar to the early varieties of Mystic Union described by Pike (in spite of their lack of distinctly theistic content), in as much as they share with them an intentional awareness of some “ultimate ground,” which Smith (1986) identifies with an intuitive sense of “transcendence;” see Smith’s (1986) essay in this volume.

  25. 25.


  26. 26.

    Excerpts from Richard Clarke’s (1984) translation.

  27. 27.

    Interestingly, within Zen this “emptiness” state is not seen as the pinnacle of mystic achievement. After the attainment of this state, the Zen practitioner is expected to integrate their realization into their everyday consciousness. Kakuan’s final two Ox-herding pictures allude to path beyond emptiness; his last picture is titled “Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands.” Much of my own work focuses on this Zen ideal of a continuous mystical consciousness; see Zelinski (1997, 2000, 2007): The Meaning of Mystical Life, “Dogen’s ‘Ceaseless Practice’”, and “From Prudence to Morality: A Case for the Morality of Some Forms of Nondualistic Mysticism.”

  28. 28.

    Pike also maintains that the position that union without distinction is inherently theistic is required if one is to remain true to, “the intentions expressed in the primary mystical literature”; Pike 1992, p. 162. However, I am uncertain what he has in mind here. Earlier in the text, he carefully argues that the Christian mystics, owing to their commitment to the theological doctrine of God’s essential immutability, are careful to avoid claims that their experiences of union with God have any metaphysical import. But the question here is over the phenomenological status of the experience. And, as Pike also takes pains to point out, many of the Christian mystics were not afraid to assert that their experiences were phenomenologically of God-soul identity. This distinction between phenomenology of the experience and the underlying (dualistic) metaphysics is, for example, present in the above extended quote by Tauler on union without distinction.

  29. 29.

    Pike 1992, p. 38. Pike’s analysis here poses an interesting meta-phenomenological issue of how the temporal boundaries for “an experience” are established.

  30. 30.

    Pike 1992, p. 40.

  31. 31.

    Pike 1992, p. 162.

  32. 32.

    Pike 1992, p. 164.

  33. 33.

    For a detailed and rigorous investigation of this general phenomenological principle, see Husserl’s (1964), On the Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness. In Husserlian terms, Pike is noting that part of the extended phenomenological content of a specific moment of consciousness includes retentions of one’s immediately preceding moments.

  34. 34.

    Pike 1992, p. 163.

  35. 35.


  36. 36.


  37. 37.

    Pike 1992, p. 165. Pike also supplies an illuminating auditory example, here, the moment of silence before the last measure of the Hallelujah Chorus. “Experientially, it is not just a silence. By virtue of its auditory ancestry, it is (as Saint John might say) a sounding silence.” While Nelson’s taste in music was admittedly more refined than my own, his example made me recall a moment during the final song of Van Morrison’s live album, “It’s Too Late to Stop Now,” where during an abrupt and prolonged dramatic pause in the music a fan yells out (in 1970’s vernacular), “turn it on,” and Van can be heard responding, “it’s turned on already.” Interestingly, in these cases the phenomenology of the experience is arguably more influenced by the listener’s anticipation of return of music than merely the retention of the preceding moments.

  38. 38.

    I am indebted to Christyl Everleigh for her help on this point.

  39. 39.

    Rowe, p. 377; my emphasis is added.

  40. 40.

    Pike acknowledges that his position requires “interpreting ‘content’ in a very permissive way (for example, as we might say that the silence before the last measure of the Hallelujah Chorus is part of the content of the auditory experience),” Pike 1992, p. 165.

  41. 41.

    Similarly, the state of consciousness described in the Upanishads and taken by Stace to be paradigmatic of his introvertive state (quoted above), is described as “beyond expression” and “ineffable peace.”


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Correspondence to Daniel Zelinski.

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Submitted for an issue of Philosophia (edited by Asa Kasher) devoted to the work of the late Nelson Pike. Presented informally at the Nelson Pike Conference at the University of California, Irvine, on December 11, 2010.

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Zelinski, D. On Pike on “Union without Distinction” in Christian Mysticism. Philosophia 39, 493–509 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-011-9313-x

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  • Nelson Pike
  • Mysticism
  • Walter Stace
  • Phenomenology of religion