Soskice on Mystics and Language

Janet Martin Soskice, philosopher of religion at Cambridge, defends the realism behind descriptions of mystical experience:

Consider accounts of religious or mystical experience; the mystic, as we have noted, often feels a crisis of descriptive language because there do not seem to be words and concepts in the common stock adequate to his or her experience. This straining of linguistic resources leads to the catachretical employment of metaphor, of phrases like ‘the dark night’, ‘the spiritual marriage’, and ‘mystic union’. But the significance of these terms can be assessed, even by other theists, only in terms of the contexts in which they arise… Often, too, it will be found that the mystic’s remarks arise from particular patterns of devotional life; hence the common injunction that the neophyte follow a particular course of life, of reading and of prayer so that he may, by God’s grace, be open to this ‘night’ or ‘marriage’. Experience is vital to the mystic, but experience interpreted in the descriptive vocabulary of their particular community of interest and tradition of belief.

This emphasis on experience does not mean that only those privileged with mystical experiences can speak about them. The generality of Christians speak of the ‘beatific vision’ without having had experiences which they would describe as such. They do so because they belong to a community and tradition of faith which contains authoritative members for whom the term does denominate a particular experience. There is an element of trust involved in relying on others who experience is wider than one’s own, yet in almost all areas of life this is the perfectly rational enterprise of using the wider resources of the community to extend one’s own, and necessarily limited, experience and expertise. (Metaphor and Religious Language, 151-2)

These ‘authoritative members’ are, of course, the saints, whose own intimate encounters with God ground our language about him, so many years later or across continents. They also provide a sort of guideline for figuring out how to grow deeply into God, as we may recognize similar experiences of a ‘dark night of the soul’ or an intimate ‘spiritual marriage.’