Consciousness of God as God is: The phenomenology of Christian centering prayer
Author(s)Blaschke, Benno Alexander
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AbstractIn this study I aim to give an alternative approach to the way we theorise in the philosophy and comparative study of mysticism. Specifically, I aim to shift debate on the phenomenal nature of contemplative states of consciousness away from textual sources and towards reliable and descriptively rich first-person data originating in contemporary practices of lived traditions. The heart of this dissertation lies in rich qualitative interview data obtained through recently developed second-person approaches in the science of consciousness. I conducted in-depth phenomenological interviews with 20 Centering Prayer teachers and practitioners. The interviews covered the larger trajectory of their contemplative paths and granular detail of the dynamics of recent seated prayer sessions. I aided my second-person method with a “radical participation” approach to fieldwork at St Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass. In this study I present nuanced phenomenological analyses of the first-person data regarding the beginning to intermediate stages of the Christian contemplative path, as outlined by the Centering Prayer tradition and described by Centering Prayer contemplatives. My presentation of the phenomenology of Centering Prayer is guided by a synthetic map of Centering Prayer’s (Keating School) contemplative path and model of human consciousness, which is grounded in the first-person data obtained in this study and takes into account the tradition’s primary sources. This includes: (1) an outline of the stages of the contemplative path; (2) the levels of consciousness (ordinary, spiritual and divine) and the type of experiential content (coarse, subtle and very subtle/divine presence) proper to each stage of the path; and (3) corresponding types of self (false, true and separate-self sense). My study addresses three meta-issues in the field pertaining to method, description and theory. First, I offer a new framework for the comparative study of contemplative practices and experiences, alongside a sound second-person method for collecting first-person data from contemplative practitioners. Second, I provide an effective framework for developing phenomenological accounts that are descriptively faithful, analytically transparent and theoretically useful. Third, I draw on the phenomenological accounts developed in this study to reconsider important theses advanced in the contemporary philosophy and comparative study of mysticism. On this basis, I argue that practitioners phenomenally apprehend union states, specifically prayer of full union, through experiential primitives, such as a “sense of presence”, and without a “God-identification element”. Consequently, union states are phenomenologically of an unidentified reality and therefore not theistic, in Katz’s and Pike’s senses. However, there might be some sense in which they are phenomenologically of God, because they could be practitioners’ consciousness of God as God is; but this would empirically disconfirm received views of how God should be experienced. This finding challenges arguments for a unique theistic experience, designed to uphold a fundamental distinction between theistic and nontheistic experiences. Since Christian practitioners do not necessarily have unique theistic experiences in union, in the way that Katz and Pike require, there is at least some sense in which contemplatives from different traditions and cultures could have experiences similar in content and structure.