On the 27th of February 2017, the Center of Excellence for Philosophy of Religion (CEPR) at the Islamic Research Institute for Culture and Thought (IICT) hosted a meeting with Prof. Steven T. Katz, professor in the department of religion at Boston University, USA.
Participants from Iran were:
- Hojjat-ul-Islam Dr. Abolfazl Sajedi, Director of CEPR
- Dr. Mohammad Mohammad Rezaei, Member of CEPR
- Dr. Ramezan Ali-Tabar Firoozjaei, Member of CEPR
- Hamid Amirchaqmaqi, Executive Director of CEPR
- Javad Taheri: Administrator of International Affairs of IICT and Organizer of the Meeting
Hojjat-ul-Islam Dr. Sajedi, first introduced IICT, the Center of Excellence for Philosophy of Religion and described some of the programs and activities of the center. He then pointed to a number of western books and articles in the field of philosophy of religion, theology etc. which have been translated from English into Persian. Dr. Sajedi also described the objectives of holding such meetings. He then introduced the Iranian panel participants and at the end of this opening session, asked Prof Katz to introduce himself and deliver his speech on “the relationship between mysticism and the very notion of philosophy of religion.”
Prof. Katz, at first, expressed his pleasure at being invited to participate in this meeting and hoped that such cooperation will continue in order to enrich the scientific body of academic works on religious studies between Iran and western countries.
He said that one of the most important issues in religious studies and philosophy of religion was the subject of religious experience. In consequence, as he pointed out, the subject of Mysticism has garnered a great deal of attention from scholars of religion.
Prof. Katz explained the linguistic (etymological) and technical meanings of Mysticism and pointed to one reasonable definition: “Mysticism is the quest for direct experience of God (or the Absolute)”. Along with this definition he pointed out that, “Mystical experience is usually described as being unitive in character, wherein the self was absorbed into the Absolute”
In recent decades, however, a new approach to the study of mysticism and mystical experiences has emerged. In this new approach, mystical experiences are not analyzed in isolation but they are, rather, deconstructed in relation to the socio-historical and religious context out of which they emerge. This means that Sufis, Kabbalists, Buddhist and Christian mystics (and others), must be studied in relation to the main religious traditions out of which they come.
The concept of pure mystical experience is to some extent empty because all of our experiences, and especially our religious and mystical experiences, are organized by epistemological channels that are not “unmediated”. Given the reports we have of their experiences, no mystic experiences an unmediated mystical experience. This fact accounts for the diversity to be found in mystical experiences. That is to say, mystics have different mystical experiences because the cultural, environmental and religious contexts of their lives are not the same. For example, a Christian mystic may experience a triune God, while a Buddhist mystic experiences an ultimate reality that is devoid of God.
When Prof. Katz finished his lecture, the Iranian participants from the Center of Excellence for Philosophy of Religion raised some important questions for him and he responded as follows.
Prof. Abolfazl Sajedi, asked: Do you think there is a common ground between different religions?
Answer: I think religions do have elements in common, especially ethical concerns. But there is not one religious experience which can be a common mystical experience.
Question: Is one justified to prefer some religious and mystical religion or denomination over other ones.
Answer: No, we do not have permission or grounds for making such a judgment. Students of mystical experience should not presume that there is a hierarchy among mystical traditions.
Prof. Mohammad Mohammad Rezaei asked: What is the criterion for differentiation of perceptual experiences from mystical ones?
Answer: The basis of mystical experiences is that the experience itself is self-affirming in ways that other kinds of experience are not. That is to say, that experience of meeting God is an overwhelming experience of self-certification and authenticity that is not allowed to be questioned by the person who experienced it.
Prof Ali-Tabar asked: How can we justify religious experience?
Answer: By the number and the quality of the mystical and religious experiences that have occurred over the ages and that are testified to by a large number of extraordinary male and female mystics. We cannot simply ignore such an impressive record across time and such a variety of testimonies that come to us from a wide diversity of cultures. Nor is it legitimate to simply disbelieve in the reality to which they point and to reduce such experiences to psychological states of being.
Prof. Abolfazl Sajedi: asked: If we consider different people who have mystical experiences, can we find any common thing which is shared by them? If no, we can say that their mystical experiences are totally different.
Answer: We have patterns within traditions. But it is difficult to specify common patterns across different traditions. For example, William James states that all religious experiences are the same because they are “paradoxical” and “ineffable”. But, very interestingly, paradoxicality and ineffability are not markers for commonality. Instead, these notions make it impossible to know what the content of an experience was and thus to compare them. Many different experiences – and objects of ultimate concern – can and have been described as being “paradoxical” and “ineffable”. So, we should study every tradition to discover the patterns for mystical and religious experience within it.
At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that we should have more such meetings during the next year in order to share ideas and theories about the nature of religion and philosophical reflection about religion.