Let me state the single epistemological assumption that has exercised my thinking and which has forced me to undertake the present investigation: There are NO pure (i.e. unmediated) experiences.

Steven T. Katz, Language, Epistemology and Mysticism

Let me state straight out that Steven T. Katz is wrong. This is a fundamental issue in understanding experiencing God, and Katz is dead wrong about this. But, let me backtrack a little to catch you up…

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies theories of knowledge. There is a very long and grand epistemological tradition in both eastern and western philosophy. And, although you may never have thought about it before, this question is the tipping point for understanding the experience of God.

A “mediated” experience would be one where you were primed (so to speak) to think in a certain way. So, if you are a football fan, you expect certain things from the experience of attending a foorball game. (For a humorous view of this, see the movie Coming To America, where Eddie Murphy tries to describe a football game to his boss.) Much of the time people apply what is called a “frame” to their experiences, which provides a certain way of thinking, behaving, and experiencing things.

That is to say, all experience is processed through, organized by, and makes itself available to us in extremely complex epistemological ways.

Katz, ibid

That’s the normal way of life. The important question — and the one that Katz gets wrong — is whether every experience is mediated. The frame that one puts on a situation (i.e., the things that mediate the experience) are an artifact of language, and thus those experiences outside of the frame are not able to be described. This is the essence of what makes an experience mystical: it is outside of all of our frames and is thus not mediated. He goes on thus:

The significance of these considerations is that the forms of consciousness which the mystic brings to experience set structured and limiting parameters on what the experience will be, i.e., on what will be experienced, and rule out in advance what is ‘inexperienceable’ in the particular given, concrete context. Thus, for example, the nature of the Christian mystic’s pre-mystical consciousness informs the mystical consciousness such that he experiences the mystic reality in terms of Jesus, the Trinity, or a personal God, etc., rather than in terms of the non-personal, non-everything, to be precise, Buddhist doctrine of nirvana.

Katz, ibid

This is the fundamental mistake made by people who think this way. It is not that the experience was mediated, but instead that the description of the experience is mediated. The act of putting the experience into words is the very act that forces it into a frame. Descriptions require language, and mystical language is always by necessity metaphorical. And metaphors come from one’s culture.

Experiencing God is by definition unmediated and inexplicable. Veterans say that there isn’t any way to discuss war with someone who has not been in one. Just because a vet can’t fully describe the experience doesn’t mean that war doesn’t exist. In a similar way, if you’ve not had the experience of God then you are simply out of the loop and are unable to understand. This is the essence of grace. More on this in a future post.