A phenomenology of Revelation

The Neglected Dimension

The discovery of mystical experience, or the mystical in the proper sense, is the special merit of Gerda Walther. Despite the publication of her book (The Phenomenology of the Mystical) the field remained largely untouched during the past decades. Let me suggest some possible reasons of this situation:

  • The exact nature of mystical experience is only rarely identified and most often confounded with general religious experience on the one hand, and impersonal mysticism on the other.

  • After the surge of the interest in religion during the first half of the 20th century, different developments of phenomenology – such as existentialism and structuralism – did not leave much space for a phenomenology of mysticism.

  • Phenomenologists with interest in the phenomena of religion, such as P. Ricoeur, E. Levinas. J.-L. Marion or M. Henry focused on theological themes instead of the root of theology, mystical experience.

  • Walther did not work at a university, thus did not have a circle of professional followers. Her phenomenology of mysticism remained an isolated moment in the history of recent thought.

  • Walther too seems to be responsible for the lack of broader interest for her book as she does not offer a clear distinction between parapsychological experience and mystical experience sui generis. In spite of calling attention to the original phenomenon of mystical experience, it seems that she emphasized the connections between the mystic and borderline phenomena too strongly.

Is it possible to explore mystical experience independently of borderline experiences such as the communication with physically not present persons? In my opinion it is possible – if and only if we remain in the realm of subjective experience. The experience of the mystical can be explored for instance by starting with the mystical element in esthetic experience of nature and art. Esthetic experience is more accessible and more often present in our lives (see Mezei, Art and religion). A beautiful evening scene in the mountains, or the melody of a musical piece by Bach are absolutely capable of giving us starting points on a path, which leads to higher level mystical experiences. Walther indeed emphasized natural esthetic experience; yet her further points on telepathy etc. may indeed alienate some of her readers.



Another possible starting point could be a historical typology of mystical experience. Here too Walther offers some insights, without nevertheless the clear structures of a systematic view. Such experts on mysticism as for instance J. H. Haas help us to clearly see the possibility of a historical typology in mysticism, a typology in which the experience of the mystical in Walther’s sense proves to be central. Yet the importance of historical changes cannot be underestimated as is shown for instance in the fundamental change which characterizes the history of our notion of a human person during the past two millennia.

A broader criticism of Walther’s approach can be developed on the basis of a general theory of religious experience. Otto, van der Leeuw, Heiler and others offer such general theories on phenomenological basis. Yet only a few authors recognize that the root of religious experience in the proper sense is not to be found in the immediate sphere of the experiencing subject. In religious experience, the subject is related to something greater than the subject, God. It is actually the central feature of religious experience that it opens the way to greater reality. Mystical experience, moreover, reveals that this greater reality is God’s direct self-donation. Mystical experience is not about a pantheistic, impersonal feeling, but about a concrete and ultimate relation between God and a human being in the very concrete situation we find ourselves. Mystical experience is ultimately concrete, it is about God as communicated concretely to the experiencing subject. In other words, a theory of this concrete experience is at the same time a theory of divine communication. God’s self-disclosure, manifestation, or revelation is the center of such a theory; and since such a self-disclosure is at the same time the fundamental phenomenon – inasmuch as a phenomenon is the moment of self-disclosing – then a phenomenology of divine revelation offers the theoretical framework in which mystical experience can be situated.

In my other publications I have already delineated such a framework, the outlines of a phenomenology of divine revelation. I am aware of the fact that philosophers as M. Heidegger, M. Henry or J.-L. Marion have already developed understandings of religion or religious phenomena in a way close to a phenomenology of revelation. Yet in my view a phenomenology of revelation is not possible without the clear distinction between general religious experience on the one hand, and the experience of the mystical on the other. If mystical experience is singled out, defined, clarified, and put at the basis of our theory, a phenomenology of revelation becomes possible in the genuine sense. I call this the phenomenology of pure revelation, where “pure” refers to the systematic character of description.



Revelation too is manifold; yet no kind of divine revelation is more important than the one identified by Avery Dulles in The Models of Revelation. Dulles speaks of five fundamental models of revelation. The first four models are as follows: the propositional, the historical, the private, and that of dialectical presence. The fifth model is the model of new awareness; a certain experience of mystical openness. As Dulles writes,

God’s self-revelation in the depths of the spiritual person occurs primarily as a ‘state of mind – not knowledge but consciousness.' ” (Dulles 101)

Revelation as New Awareness emphasizes three important aspects of mystical experience:

  • Revelation is ultimately personal and concrete;

  • Revelation is open to not-yet-experienced possibilities in form and content;

  • Revelation may be present in any form of consciousness of a human being.

Walther’s importance can be grasped in this that she realized that the experience of the mystical is an original phenomenon, a sui generis moment. The experience of the mystical is at the same time fully personal, originated in the self-disclosure of a personal God and directed to the concrete human person in her concrete situation. Walther realized too that the experience of the mystical has the peculiar character of being absolute yet open at the same time. Indeed, mystical experience has a kind of infinity, which is the guarantee of its openness. Finally, mystical experience, while fully unique, imbues a person’s life in all its segments.

We may add: not only paranormal phenomena can be bearers of the experience of the mystical but any occurrence in life. A phenomenology of the mystical, if conceived in broader terms, can be based on the richness of human experience and developed into an open theory of divine self-disclosure: a pure phenomenology of revelation.

Gerda Walther: "Phänomenologie der Mystik". Walter Verlag, 1982.

This is an extract of the author’s article, entitled Gerda Walther’s Place in a Phenomenological Philosophy of Religion, to be published later.

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